I’m lucky to work in higher education, where the week between Christmas and the new year are seen as an automatic holiday. This year, I took a few extra days before Christmas off, meaning a lot of time at home with the family.
What did we do? Not much. A bit of repair work on my car, some house showings, a couple of sick kids to contend with, and the busy back-and-forth of family holiday time. I was able to dig into a few photo books – Alex Webb’s The Suffering of Light was a nice Christmas gift – and think about my creative work for 2017.
But mostly, it was just what I had hoped for: quiet time, doing quiet things.
Every year for Christmas my wife makes these great molasses cookies – a ton of them, with homemade frosting.
We take a day and decorate them in our favorite themes and characters, and then we share with friends and family over the holidays. It’s a great little family tradition.
I’ve missed working on video stuff so much since leaving Albion that I grabbed my Canon 6D, a 50mm lens, and took some video and photos. It was fun to edit footage and make a little film again. The process is one of those flow state situations, and I do miss it.
In photography, think about photo projects or series as opposed to single images. So many of us simply capture little snippets of video of family, friends, and outings. With all the (free!) tools at our disposal, it’d be fun to see more people put in the effort to making video stories, not just clips.
Last year, we didn’t get to Gwinn’s until darkness covered the tree lot. We picked a Christmas tree that felt right. And it was so cold.
This year was different. The temperatures were in the 40s, thanks to a very mild autumn, so we let the kids run through the rows of evergreens, tiring themselves in the cool air. We played tag, and chased each other in the trees.
Then we got the tree home – a short-needle variety, very soft – and did the real work: putting up the ornaments and lights. The kids were so tired from running at the tree farm that they were ready for bed early. That was fine with us.
As we plugged in the lights, we felt official. Ready for the holidays. All that’s missing in are the cookies.
Sick day at home with the kids. The boy got pink eye two days ago, and the baby woke up with it this morning.
Lots of hand-washing these past few days.
It’s not all bad. We watched the snow fall – only the second snowy day here in Michigan so far, which is weird this late into the year. The kids are still in pajamas, the Christmas music is going, and we’re all quiet and restful.
Working from home while a baby toddles around the house is a challenge, especially with icky hands. But I wouldn’t trade days at home with the kids for anything.
Last weekend we traveled up to Harbor Springs, Michigan—a beautiful little bayside town along the Little Traverse Bay, on Lake Michigan—to visit family for a birthday party. These little weekend vacations are a nice, quick getaway. We need a distraction from selling the house, and who can say “no” to northern Michigan?
The autumn colors were gorgeous, of course, but so was the light coming in from the big living room window. It’s one of my favorite situations to shoot in; we’re lucky enough to have a big window in our living room back home.
But for this weekend, with all the cousins playing together and quiet fall mornings spent sketching or watching the game, we soaked up all the light and seasonal spirit we could.
For the last few years, every holiday season, I’ve made it a point to create a family photo album. It’s a highlight reel of the most recent year, with our vacations, our birthdays, our seasons and walks and daily routines all documented.
My family photos albums were so important to me growing up. For many years, a lot of my childhood photo albums were somewhere I couldn’t get to them. It was only in the last seven or eight years that I got ownership back, and I made it a point to scan all those childhood pictures for safe-keeping (digital is relatively fire proof, as long as you have a good stable backup).
Going through those old photo albums was satisfying. I feel like I got my childhood back. And today, while we still print individual photo prints of the family, the idea of a photo book—a collective annual history—is a tradition I want to carry on. I look forward to making our photo book each year.
Another tradition: making a photo calendar and giving it away to family members. That’s become an annual tradition too, and it’s fun to see a year full of family photos and memories up on relatives’ walls. It makes for a great Christmas gift.
This year, I want to try something new: give away photo books to family members. With my daughter turning one this week, I think a photo book of her first year might make some family members pretty happy.
These are the types of things that keep memories alive.
This year, with the photo book idea, I can keep our collective family history going – and make sure that if one collection of pictures gets lost, there’s another copy floating around somewhere.
Lately I’ve thought long and hard about sharing family photos on the various photography outlets.
It’s kind of an automatic thing on Facebook, even though I’m using that site less, because family photos are what friends and family are interested in. How are the kids doing? Where is this year’s vacation spot? How is our nearly-one-year-old daughter growing?
For other outlets—Flickr, Instagram, here on the photo blog—it’s a tougher question for me. First, I’m a pretty private person. And second, who is interested, if anyone?
How much do I share? And where?
I look at other photographers’ family work, and lately it’s some of the best stuff I see. Many of my favorite photographers have no issue sharing photos of their family.
Since my daughter was born last year, and even before that, I’ve taken a ton of family photos – some of which I’m proud of. Should I share those as a larger sample of my photography? How do I read my own slight discomfort at sharing family stuff? Why do I feel that way in the first place? Why is Facebook okay, but my photo blog not okay?
This week is an experiment. With my daughter’s birthday coming up this weekend, I hope to land somewhere by then.
Her death stands in stark contrast to the freewheeling life she led. Us kids, my oldest sister and me, were merely along for the ride.
Many that know me know that I cut off any relationship with my mom in high school. It wasn’t due to any lack of love, but I had my own self-preservation to think about. A decent life could not co-exist with my mom.
I’ve reacted to the news the way anyone would react to the death of a long-lost aunt or distant cousin. There’s that tickle in the brain when you lose someone you love but have no real relationship with: it hurts a little, but only a little.
I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, and in the book the character of Ma Joad becomes the head of the family after instability rocks the ground underneath the Joad men. Through her steady hand and strong will, Ma Joad becomes the solid foundation of the Joad “fambly” – despite the move cross-country to a state full of unknowns.
My own life has lacked one continuous “Ma Joad” figure. When I was young, my Grandma Bonnie (my mother’s mother) was there for me. As I grew up, my Grandma Maxine (my dad’s mother) and my Grandpa Bill (my mother’s grandfather) helped me along until I moved in with my dad right before high school. I needed the help because my own mother was the anti-Ma Joad: a constant source of chaos, instability, and high drama.
But all that is gone, now.
My sister gave me an old photo album Monday night, when her, my grandma, and me paid respects to my mom in our own, traditional way. Inside were pictures from when my parents were still together and I was a newborn. These pictures, combined with many others I have from my childhood, reveal the chimera that was my mother. Sweet, fun-loving, easy to laugh – this is what I remember and saw in those pictures. In fact, it’s obvious that she cared about me as a baby. Then there was the ugly side.
Which is why looking through the pictures points out my mom’s tragedy. A person so vibrant and so happy eventually ruined her own life with drugs and alcohol. Things could have been so much different.
As it was, I never had that sense of “fambly” or stability that I read about in Grapes. I attended 10 different elementary schools, three in the 5th grade, and four different junior highs. We lived in more houses and apartments that I can remember. We were homeless for a while. Life was a whirlwind, and that kind of living has a tremendous effect on kids.
So there are other things, besides pictures, that my mother left us. For myself, I’ve learned over the years that I have a neurotic attachment to stability. I have my schedule, and my routine, and I hate it when things don’t go “according to plan.” I show up early, and I fucking hate moving. The direct result of my mother’s chaotic life was an aversion to chaos; I swung toward order and ritual, and I swung hard.
My sister – my poor, poor sister – is another story entirely. She bore the full brunt of my mother’s behavior, and she deals with the consequences ever day. And because she never left my mother behind, my sister is having the most trouble dealing with my mom’s death.
But even she said, at dinner the other night, “I kind of feel relieved.”
This is the legacy of my mom. Being with her was like living in Florida, knowing there’s a high possibility that a strong hurricane would come and blow your shit out to sea.
I chose to up and move to my dad’s when I was 14, in search of a stable household and a parent who didn’t abuse themself or those around them, but I’m sure in some ways my mom never left me. She was always outside the boarded-up windows I built for myself, howling away and wrecking havok.
It’s sad that we all feel relieved now that she’s dead, because we should be feeling something else. Not sadness, not peace, but that we lost something important to our lives.
That’s not how it happened, and so I haven’t felt much at all in the week since she’s been gone. I did such a good job of keeping her out of my life for the past few years that I didn’t really lose anything when she passed. She was gone to begin with, in my eyes.