Symposium: Photographic Memory

A trove of photographs takes an alumna back in time.

By Rochelle F. Singer ’73

Outdoors, the smell of spring, the sound and color of it, are like never before. With no car exhaust, no screeching children in the playgrounds, spring is flaunting its beauty. But danger lurks. Limp latex gloves and faceless doctor’s masks litter the ground among the pinks of fallen bougainvillea. Sirens wail over birdsong and insect buzz. Indoors, alone, you search for a project to defeat what has become your biggest enemy: time. The one thing you’ve always run out of now threatens to vanquish you with its excess. You’ve swept and scrubbed, taken apart your oven, cooked too much, baked too much, and frozen so much that your freezer is choked; you’ve put yourself at the beck and call of WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom, and Netflix. You eye the cabinet in your living room, bursting with orange Kodak envelopes, many unlabeled. You settle down on the rug, pull out one after another, and spread them around you like a wreath.

You reach for photos of your honeymoon in 1974, a cross-country trip. You recall the VW minibus that you and your husband turned into a camper, the vast landscapes, parks and canyons, the small towns, the sprawling cities. To your dismay, most of the photos have faded. You find one taken of you at Lake Powell on the Colorado River — your head and shoulders etched against the sky. Your yellow bikini is an ugly beige, but the look on your face makes you catch your breath. It brims with the pride and happiness of knowing you’re loved. You wonder how all that joy disappeared. How all that love could have ended in divorce.

Envelope after envelope, you relive the years gone by. Your first pregnancy, wearing a lilac top with delicate pleats over your breasts that made you feel so feminine. The birth of your first son. Here is the spread-eagle photograph that your husband took, the umbilical cord still hanging. Days after, you showed this photo to anyone who would look. Only a week later did you realize how private it was. You linger over a photo of you after a vigorous swim in the lake, cupping your belly, a day before your second son was born. You chuckle seeing your boys coax your dog down a slide on his backside. You leaf through pictures of birthday parties, graduations, your sons dressed in Purim costumes, and bittersweet army inductions.

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sketch of hand holding photos

You open envelopes with pictures of old boyfriends who came and went with a frequency that now bothers you. Did you refuse to settle, were you unaware of who and what you wanted from a partner, or were you so content with your threesome that you refused to turn it into a foursome?

When you come across pictures of your loved traveling companion, you mourn her absence as if she has just passed away, though it’s been five years. Memories of the exotic places you visited are a blur. But your shared experiences flood you with longing. How you both reveled in planning itineraries, sought the personal ambience of guest houses, and squabbled over who held the map as you explored cities and countryside.

Pictures of your parents are scattered over the years. One of your father catches your eye. He’s crouching in front of your firstborn, his face shining. Now you reach for one of him in his last days. You freeze. You look away. For the briefest of moments, you manage to call him back: the exuberance of his voice, the tenderness of his touch. But in the same instant he’s gone. You experience such deep loss that your eyes sting with tears.

What have you done? Instead of conquering time, you’ve been hijacked by it.

You step outside the wreath you’ve laid, seeking fresh air. You let spring in. Its sounds, smells, and colors wash over you. You strive to stay in the moment where time can’t touch you.

Rochelle F. Singer is a technical and marketing writer by vocation and a fiction and personal story writer at heart. She lives in Tel Aviv and bikes throughout the city to its beaches and cultural events. Her years at Barnard as an English major remain a vibrant memory.

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