Janesville62.7°

Life in a snapshot

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Ellen Goodman
August 13, 2009
— I am back at my post. Feet planted on the porch railing. Back braced against the familiar contours of the Adirondack chair.

On the birdfeeder before me, squabbling goldfinches vie for the same perches as if there were not plenty of open seats at their sunflower seed banquet. A bold hummingbird stops chasing his larger avian foes to see if I am worth his time and then moves on.


The house is quiet this morning. A summer of rain has given way, at last, to sun. A summer of family has given way to solitude. The superheroes who must be obeyed and mini-doctors in need of an adult patient have packed up their imaginations and left us to the landscape. The cacophony of grandchildren is replaced by the low hum of a neighbor’s lobster boat in the cove.


Weeding, they say, is a gardener’s full employment program. But children are a grandparent’s full employment program. The cultivation of one has let the other get out of hand. Crabgrass has become our garden’s most reliable produce.


So I give the garden my attention and then move on to my other weeding job. It’s time to cull the family photographs on my laptop. The portrait of our Fourth of July clown. The crabs in the bucket. The epic water fight. The cousins picnicking on a rocky point they could once only navigate with adult help and now clamber over with abandon.


I choose the best of these—a sunny, happy, “say-cheese” album—although not without wondering about my role as editor. The Brownie and Kodachrome of my childhood and parenthood have been replaced by the digital camera and the ubiquitous cell phone lens of my grandparenthood.


These come with their instant images and delete buttons that leave a record of childhood as one long smile. There is even a camera with a smile detector that automatically clicks at a toothy grin. Do we now excise the frowns of childhood the way we edit out red-eye?


But I am here as grandparent, not editor. So I will transform the photo album of experiences into memories and add them to the family rogues’ gallery that lines the hallway of our farmhouse. There cousins can see themselves and their childhood in a kind of time-lapse photography.


It is, I suppose, the business of grandparents to create memories and the relative of memories: traditions. We want to lodge moments, like snapshots, in the fleeting video of time. We want to expand the comfort zone of emotional routines.


I suspect this is one way we bond with grandchildren who take to traditions with the same natural ease that they paradoxically take to the latest computer game.


My 7-year-old granddaughter already has her list of island traditions. She arrives on the ferry with her Tamagotchi and a checklist of Things We Do on the Island. The walk to the store for ice cream. The collection of sea glass and shells to be carefully sorted while sitting on the same judicial stone.


She comes as well with memories for which there are no photographs. The day of the tomato hornworm. The night of the bat.


My 6-year-old grandson expects grandma’s “Condor food” for breakfast and tales at bedtime. He memorized true “mommy stories” from my repertoire and insists on another variation of tales starring “scary hand and friendly hand.” Along with the electronic games we fear have taken ownership of his mental storage space, there is room for every story of his grandfather’s boyhood pranks.


Parents—I remember well—are caught in the dailiness of child-raising. But grandparents, imbued with a different sense of time, create a narrative arc across generations. If parents are the forward momentum of a child’s life, we become the curators of traditions.


How odd, I think, as I sort the photographs, that of all the generations, mine would end up as traditionalists. Weren’t we the ones who upended the whole culture, the relationships between husbands and wives, the preconceptions about family? Aren’t we the people who were born before TV and, in a blink, got Medicare cards and iPhones at the same time? Weren’t we our country’s designated change agents?


Yet, here we are after all this time, with our children’s children. We have become, of all things, of all people, the collectors of memories and builders of family traditions. This is what we do with small people on a small island, one snapshot, one story, and one summer at a time.


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman1@me.com.

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