By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 5, 2016
With smartphones, we always have a camera ready to snap a pic. Growing up my parents would only splurge for a roll of film on special occasions, like a cross-country vacation, or a big Christmas. Even after I moved out on my own, I seldom bought film. So I don’t have many photos from my first fifty years of life. Now that I’m getting older and my memory is going, I wish that I had pictures of people, places and pets that I never took.
For example, the other day I struggled to remember what the old Periodicals Department looked like back in the early 1980s, when I worked at the Memphis State University Library (now University of Memphis). I don’t know why I started thinking about this large room where I lived 8:00-4:30 with fourteen other people for six years. We had 15 desks crammed together. It was during my early thirties. We each had to work one night during the week and about every fifth weekend. I volunteered for Fridays since I was married. There was always a regular crowd of lonely folks hanging out at the library on Friday nights. Like the English professor who would visit for an hour ever Friday and tell me about his rare Bible collection or the rug factory his Lebanese immigrant family owned, or the hipster dude who came in like clockwork to read the Playboys, and called the Commercial Appeal the “commercial appall” – a joke I heard hundreds of times.
My memory has no images for their faces. Nor can I really see that workroom I spent so many years toiling away, typing up missing serial orders on a manual typewriter. I’ve search Google images in vain to find a photo of that Periodicals Department. One of the few times Google has let me down. I have fleeting mental fragments that I can’t put together into a whole scene. Like the rickety wood cart we kept the Commercial Appeal and Wall Street Journal on until we got them on microfilmed. They were the two most requested items at the desk, so we’d roll that cart up close to our stools. I also remember the two blond wooden tables that were shoved together to make one long work area for sorting the mail. We checked in hundreds of magazines and newspapers every day. I try to imagine, Rita, Jane, Mike, Barbara, Kitty, Pam, Floyd, Jack, Delores, Robert, Margaret, Carol, Susan and Mary at their desks.
I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about that room and those people. I left it thirty years ago and seldom thought about it since. But my mind wanders and memory fragments stab me, and the black holes trouble me. I guess that’s part of getting older.
I fantasize about a different life, an alternate history, of living with digital cameras since I was born back in 1951. I wish I had taken a photograph of every house I lived in, from all angles, and showing each room. I wish I had taken a photograph of every vacant lot and patch of woods I played in. I wish I had a photograph of every pet I own, and every friend I had, and every pet they owned. I wish I had photographs of every school I attended, with all my teachers, classmates and classrooms. I wish I had a photograph of every library, bookstore and record store I’ve visited. I wish I had pictures of every place I worked and everyone I worked with.
My father was in the Air Force and we moved around even more often than normal servicemen. My dad was a restless guy who volunteered to be relocated. We’d move to a new city, rent a house, start at a school, then buy a house, and switch to another school. I’ve lived in dozens of houses, and attended at least 15 schools before I got out of high school. I worked at a lot of different jobs starting as a paperboy at 12, and until I got married. But once I got married, I stayed at the same job for almost forty years, although I worked at a bunch of different departments, offices and buildings. Because I was the web photographer for our college in later years, I collected those pictures into a folder before I left. When I look into that folder so many memories are unleashed. I wish I had folders for every place I lived, studied and worked. I wonder what memories are buried in my head that would be released with the right photo to trigger them?
I’ve written about the ache for photos to help remember before, see “Homestead AFB Library 1962-1963.”
Generally, when we take pictures, we usually take pictures of people, or our pets. I have a fair number of those to comfort me. What I miss, are pictures of buildings, rooms, computers, radios, baseball gloves, stereos, cars, television sets, bicycles—all missing objects that now haunt me in their absence. I miss things. I miss places. I miss roads and paths. I miss trees and shrubs. I miss bookcases, books, record cases and records. My mind longs to see how things were shaped and laid out. I miss seeing down long tree lined streets or sandy paths through woods, that I walked and hiked.
I wonder how many visual vistas my brain has recorded. They pop up in dreams and sometimes when I’m awake. Could I learn to recall them? Our brains seem to have a compression algorithm that is very lossy. Or is that just a faulty recall mechanism. My dreams often seem of much higher resolution than my recalled memories during conscious moments.
If I had the photographs I wanted, would looking at them burn their limited views over my natural memories? This makes me wonder if I did have photographs of all these things, how would I organize them? How often would I look at them. Would they boost my ability to remember or make my memory processor weaker?
Young people growing up today with smartphones that can take pictures, videos and sound recordings. Will having huge libraries of external memories alter their souls? What will their nostalgia be like in 50 years? Will having so much external evidence make them into different people than we are now? Aren’t we different people from those who lived before photography?
I can remember the Christmas above. It was one of the big ones. I don’t remember being so small though, nor my sister and her friends being so tiny either. We were giants back then. We were the King and Queen of our street. I led the Eagle Club, and my sister had her Please and Thank You Club. My sister Becky is the redhead, and that’s Patty Paquette flashing her underwear, and Jody playing with a flower pot. I wish Michael Kevin Ralph was in this photo. You can’t see the details in the grass, but that yard is full of stickers. This was Hollywood, Florida, 1959, and stickers were a big problem for us kids who loved to go barefoot. I had just turned eight. This was a new subdivision called Lake Forest, and only half the block was built. The sidewalk actually ended halfway round the block. We’d roller skate to one end of the sidewalk, and then skate back to the other end. It was wonderful when the built the other half and we could skate the whole block. Down the street was an empty lot, where Mike and I built a fort. It was a pit covered over with old branches, brown Christmas trees and abandoned boards. Later the Catholic Church conquered our fort. We should have fought harder.
If I kept looking at this photo I could write a hundred thousand words. A thousand is too few.
JWH – Essay #994