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When Every Photograph Told a Story

When I started writing my memoir, now called – I Belong to No One – it was an autobiographical journey through a childhood that had more twists and turns than a roller-coaster.  I was raised by a single mother who was stricken with mental illness, robbing her of the capacity to function as a nurturer or role model.  In my desperate search for love and support, I became a teen pregnancy statistic.  It was the early seventies, a time that is now referred to in Australia as the forced adoption era.  Despite at first thumbing my nose at convention, I capitulated and agreed to a marriage when my baby was three months old.  It was a disastrous and short-lived affair, one that sparked a custody tussle.  I was eventually persuaded, by church and welfare authorities, that adoption was the best option for my two year old toddler’s well being and future.  Perhaps my manuscript needs one more edit, but essentially, the narrative focus is on the loss of motherhood, and how that loss echoes from one generation to another.  I feel it is an important and relevant story, and I hope that in time I can attract the attention of a literary agent or publisher.

When I started writing my history, quite a number of years ago now, I didn’t plan for that story to come through so strongly.  I am a first-time author, cursed with an over-active memory.  So at first, my writing was a collection of remembering.  Something I documented on Saturdays when I was free from work and my husband was at golf.  I wrote thousands of words.  Inevitably, a significant number of tales have been culled out of the current manuscript.  What to do with them?  Some of them could be the basis for future writings; source material for short stories – or maybe even a novel.  As well, I am toying with the idea of posting some of them on this blog.  At least in that way they will see the light of day, and hopefully I would receive feedback that would help me improve my writing.

Even though I have a keen memory, I found it helped to look for triggers.  One Saturday, I opened the family photograph album.  Later, I learned that this is a known technique for memoir writers.  At the time, however, I was working instinctively.

We didn’t own a camera, but we did have a few photographs.  My mother kept them in a now battered album with a padded brown cover embossed in a checked pattern, something akin to crocodile skin.  Included in the embossing is a coat of arms with two lions and a crown on top.  It was once a precious gift, something of substance which she must have treasured for some years, arranging the photographs and sticking them in with adhesive corners, and captioning them in white ink. Inside, the archival paper and black and white photographs have stood the test of time.  Perhaps because there are so few photographs, the people they portray are very real.  It is easy to identify who they are, and feel a part of the scene that day.  There are photos of my cousins P* (b.1938) and B* (b.1941) as young toddlers, and also my brother (b.1946), all prettily posed in natural settings.  Here is B* with a kangaroo, and then again as a bathing beauty.  P* with a sheep, and my brother being bathed in a washbasin with a duck’s head peeping over the rim.  There is a kind of outdoors, healthy feel to it all.  Mum features mounted on a horse, located in what I think is Centennial Park, in company with a group of other ladies and one man, all mounted on horse.  It is labelled “pre-World War II – Major O’Connor”.  In another shot she is done up in full riding gear, jodhpurs and boots.  There are several shots of grandma Jummy, always looking very smart and regal, even in her casual clothes.  (She died when I was six months old).  Auntie Myra is there too, looking young and lovely





My brother features several times, and I love these shots for the character they display.  The first is at 18 months in Centennial Park.  There are two photos mounted on a single page, side by side.  He is dressed in knitted pants and cardigan, with a beret on his head, and is wearing a restraining harness, held by someone outside the shot.  In the first photo he is caught off-guard, his eyebrows turned up in to a quizzical frown, his forehead puckered, a slight anxiety in the eyes, mouth pursed, body tensed for flight. In the second, he has relaxed, broken in to a smile that makes his cheeks chubby, his hands clasped together as if in glee.

On the next page, we see the scene repeated.  This time he is three years old and in the Botannical Gardens.  Well dressed as usual, some type of overall over a zipped-up under jacket. The garments look as if they are made of felt so perhaps it was winter.  He wears a wonderful brooch of a jockey on a horse in full gallop, and on his head is a beret, knitted this time.  Again, the first photo has captured him with the solemn, slightly frowning face, not so much off-guard as resigned and waiting for the inevitable, and then the second shot more relaxed, not quite so happy as the other time, but standing tall and open faced.

Many years later, we see the scene a third time.  By now about fifteen, he is in his bedroom at our home, sitting at his study desk with a microscope in front of him.  He is slim and olive-skinned, high cheekbones, clear complexion, dark short hair, and wearing glasses. The first shot captures him sitting up straight, turned towards the camera, again solemn faced.  This time we see clearly that his upper lip protrudes slightly over his lower, something that has been hinted at in the earlier photos.  It gives him a full sensual mouth.  In the second shot, he has broken in to a wide grin, showing off his smile, attractive despite the slightly protruding upper teeth. His body has relaxed slightly into a droop as he cradles the microscope.

I remember the day that those photos were taken.  A professional photographer had canvassed the neighbourhood for business.  After some agonising over the expense, mum decided that she would take up the offer, and so this man came to our house.  I was 51/2  years old, and the two photographs taken of me that day were the first since I was six months.  I share the spotlight with my two dolls, my bride doll Elizabeth and my rag doll Annabelle.  My hair is cut in a “basin” cut.  That’s what I called it when mum put a pudding bowl on top of my head and cut off the hair that protruded below the rim. I am wearing a pretty dress, one that Aunty Myra made me.  It had a pattern of balloons all over it, and a bright pink waist sash, with the same ribbon tied in bows at the shoulders.  My aunty took pleasure in making pretty dresses for me whenever she had the opportunity.

Yours Truly Five Years Old

Yours Truly Five Years Old

There is more to what these photos tell us.  They are not only a memory and a record of people who are now aged or no longer with us.  They depict a person in a particular place at a particular time, and in this way, serve as an historical marker in our personal history.  They allow memory to be re-constructed and revived.

I wonder if in this digital age of instant snapshots, shall we lose – or enhance – the power of these ordinary moments to transport us back in time?

Garrulous Gwendoline, Wollongong

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