How We Remember Them: The Collage of Childhood Photo Frames | Art and culture

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In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been a part of life for millions. In “How We Remember Them,” we reflect on how we process loss and the things, tangible and intangible, that remind us of those we have lost.

It’s a picture frame, horrible orange-brown plastic, a product of the 1970s, bought at Kmart or Zayre or some other store that closed decades ago. These stores offered bargains, blue light specials, and financial relief to struggling single moms and families down on their luck.

I have no more than three in the photos that are taped together in the frame that is almost as old as I am, 47. There are 10 images in all. When I remove the back of the frame, I see the handwriting of my adoptive mother, Esther. Indicates who, when and sometimes where of the image. I star in several and have a supporting role in others, alongside Esther, my adoptive brother, my biological brother, my grandmother, and a variety of inanimate objects that helped define who I was: an eyepatch that earned me the nickname ” pirate”. , a baby doll dress that serves as a hat, yellow sunglasses and a wooden dog that I pulled with a rope.

I wear everything from a hat with an E for “Everett” (the city we live in), to a sunny yellow bathing suit that proclaims I’m “Miss America,” to a towel my adoptive mother cut in half. to create more, so it didn’t seem like we had less. I remember the swimsuit being one of my favorites, as were all the swimsuits I collected during my youth to wear on vacations by the lake that my adoptive mother saved up for the entire year. As I strutted around the kitchen, I asked Esther if I was the prettiest. She needed me to reassure her not about how she saw me, but about how much she loved me. I needed to know that she wouldn’t leave me like my birth mother had.

In the images, my story looks back at me from so many places.

There’s my adoptive mother’s kitchen, outfitted with faux-brick flooring made of cheap linoleum, installed by the housing project where Esther raised her three biological children and her two adoptive children, my brother and me. She often struggles for more time to pay the rent on the wall-button phone as she smokes cigarettes, a thin veil of steam billowing from her mouth and rising above her head. I imagine she’s shooting fire at the bureaucratic housing authority officials, who wear bifocals and sensible orthopedic-supported shoes bought by smart wives with names like Brenda and Margaret.

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In the kitchen, I sit in front of the white cabinet where my foster mother kept non-perishable food. We would take things out and stir culinary creations when we were bored. None of them were edible, but the birds had less discernible palates and enjoyed our makeshift dishes when we left them out on the porch.

It is also in the kitchen where I keep the eye patch that I wore for a good part of my childhood. I remember the way my eyebrow hairs stuck to the adhesive on the patch as I tore it off and watched my view of the world go from half to whole.

In the one photo in the collage that doesn’t show me, there’s a rare moment of camaraderie between the women who raised me, my adoptive mother and birth grandmother. They both smile, as my adoptive brother watches, and I wonder if the smiles were sincere or forced.

My grandmother’s jealousy of Esther became something that both me and my adoptive mother resented. It was Esther who took us on weekends, during storms, after school, and during the child-free vacations my grandparents used to take. I always wondered why my grandmother had such a hard time understanding why Esther and I were so close. It was something to celebrate, I thought, that the parentless girl trusted and loved someone who loved her back.

In several photos, I’m in the basement that served as a playroom, complete with a toy box and a makeshift kitchen with lawn chairs and a prime location under the stairs. It was conveniently located across from the washer and dryer. Once I caught my sock on a nail on the third step and fell through the wide gap between the steps and the railing and hit my body on the pavement. I just remember the way my sock felt when it caught on the nail and the cold floor when it met my cheek.

In the underground playland of poured concrete and soft blue walls, we build fantastic worlds where we are moms, movie stars or hairdressers, but I always have to be the pretty girl or the popular girl. Nobody leaves the beautiful and the dear.

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In these imaginations I create with friends, I’m not some little girl with an eyepatch whose parents abandoned her as a baby. I’m Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Blondie. I am Miss America. My bathing suit says so.

In another collage photo, there’s the snow fort where I played with the blood-related brother after the infamous Blizzard of ’78. The Winter Storm was a historic and horrifying blizzard that crippled the US city of Boston in February of that year, dropping more than two feet (0.6 m) of snow in less than 32 hours with snowdrifts up to 15 ft (4.6 m). It came on the heels of another big storm that dropped a significant amount of snow. The snow fort was big enough for us to get inside.

It’s hard to imagine my foster mom in the snow capturing our magical winter oasis built right outside our living room window. One of her children, my non-biological siblings, must have taken the photo.

Somehow my foster sisters Beth and Sue are not in any photos and are missing. This is the only thing that bothers me about this article that allows me to travel back in time so easily. A plastic-covered time machine, courtesy of my adoptive mother, long gone, along with my grandmother and mother.

With the frame comes more than pictures, more than me at all three. It’s a reminder of my past, my origin story. I was the child fostered by a woman who already had three children of her own. The one whose mother and father battled drug addictions so they couldn’t take care of her or her brother.

It is a memory of the woman who became my mother, without giving birth to me, without sharing my blood. While my grandmother took photos to hide or forget the past, my adoptive mother documented my childhood. I am grateful, especially now after her death.

In the 1970s, recording life’s moments was an arduous process. First, Esther took the pictures, which meant buying film, loading the camera, and then developing the images. I remember going to the local Kodak photo booths in the malls from my youth. We would leave the film in an envelope and give it to the assistant. Days later we would return as if an eternity had passed to find out what images had been revealed.

Once the images were developed, Esther would have purchased the frame. This was probably done on one of our trips to the store where she perused the aisles while she smoked a cigarette and browsed for deals.

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When we got home, I imagine he laid the photos out on the kitchen table, taped them together, and then affixed them to the protective hard plastic frame. Before he labeled them with the date and place as, “the winery” or the time, “La Ventisca del 78”.

I can hear the sound of the tape as she pulls out the last part of the roll and curses, angry that she’ll have to put her project aside and continue another day. I smell the smoke from his cigarette as it mixes with Avon brand perfume, a light powdery scent that I’ll still smell when I’m in college in the late 1990s, long after he died from an aggressively growing brain tumor and that doctors discover too late. . I don’t remember the name of the perfume or the type of tumor.

These photos and the memories they keep as gifts are my once upon a time. When she was alive, Esther told me about each one, regaling me with stories of who I once was. Each image is a snapshot of a time when life was less complicated than it is now. I often look at these photos when I need comfort. In them I find security and a reminder that I once belonged to someone as my children now belong to me.

The cracked frame needs to be replaced. Its plastic body is broken from years of use and the many changes it has endured following me to college, to my first apartment, and finally to my dream home.

Each image tells a story.

While I know it’s time to move the images to a new album or collage frame, I can’t. With all that has changed in my life, especially since the pandemic, this must remain unchanged.

It’s not just a collage of images with memories, it’s a thread from my past. It’s a tool I use to tell my children about my mother, a woman they never met. It’s also a way for them to see who their mother was, once, and it’s a way to share my life with them and create another generation of memories.

So I remember that I had a mother even though she was not mine by blood and biology and that she loved me enough to preserve my childhood, our past, so that I could keep it forever.