The blank space to the left is for the photo I didn’t take on Mother’s Day, this past Sunday, May 8. And why didn’t I take a photo? I didn’t take a photo because I was thinking about starting a “photo a day” project. Lots of people do that, which is one reason not to do it, I suppose, but still I’m interested in writing about photos. (Here’s Jonathan Harris’s photo a day project; for him, it was about memory.) I’m interested in writing, and I find that writing about a photo helps me write. Thus the impetus to put up a photo as a starting place for writing. But sometimes you don’t have a camera or you decide not to have a camera. Sometimes taking a photo changes everything that you don’t want changed, particularly when taking an informal photo of people, which I’m guessing most of my “The photo I didn’t take” posts would be. (I’m hoping to be able to create a black border outlining the area where the photo isn’t. Help?)
Why was I thinking about this project, about photos? Inspired, perhaps, by the “What They Were Thinking” series in the New York Times Sunday magazine. Photos with text are powerful. Whenever I see photos, I want to know the story behind the picture. Another reason I was thinking about photos was that I recently interviewed Kevin Kelly, author of (most recently) What Technology Wants and editor emeritus of Wired magazine. We were comparing travel stories and I told him how I hitchhiked around Europe during a year off from college in the ’70s and he told me about traveling through Asia. Big difference between us: he took thousands of photos; I traveled without a camera. At the time I had a theory for not having a camera, something about not wanting the act of taking a photo getting between me and the pure experience of traveling. I suppose I also didn’t want to carry a camera and deal with rolls of film and all those little gray plastic canisters that people used for storing pot.
Digital cameras have changed a lot of that. Of course you still have to carry a camera. But you can take photos like crazy, delete like crazy (or not), upload like crazy, and share in a million different ways. (My favorite way to share is via flickr.)
But now to the photo itself; the one I didn’t take. In the photo are my wife, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and my mother. We’re sitting around my sister and brother-in-law’s kitchen table in their house in Portsmouth, RI, with a view across their lawn that slopes down to the Sakonnet River, half a mile wide here, and across to the low hills of Tiverton, RI. Were it warmer outside, we’d be sitting on the back patio, but while it is sunny, it is windy and too chilly, particularly for my mother. All of us except my mother are engaged in conversation. She sits at the end of the table opposite me and stares into space. She’s worried; she’s always worried, has been ever since I can remember, though her anxiety and depression have gotten worse as she’s gotten older; she’s now 92. Physically, she’s in fine shape, in better health than most folks her age. (My dad died four years ago at the age of 88.) But mentally, well, not so good. I suspect she’s been depressed most of her adult life. She’s certainly been anxious ever since I can remember.
You’d like Mother’s Day to be better than this for her. She’s got two children, their spouses, and a grandson there at the table. Most grandmothers would be really happy to be in that situation. But my mom, no, she’s sitting there worried about who knows what; she’s got a lot of free-floating anxiety. She’s always certain that her children are going to die in a car wreck, so much so that if we’re more than two minutes late to meet her, she’ll call. In her mind’s eye, the car has crashed off the side of the road and we’re all dead inside. Whenever leaving her after a visit, I have to call when I get home to assure that we’ve made it in one piece. But even if she didn’t have our travel to worry about, she’d find something else. That is her life: anxiety. It’s sad. She could be doing something rather than just sitting around imagining “the worst.”
But in the photo I didn’t take, she looks nervous, her hands up in the air near her face, as if to protect herself from all the bad things that might happen. Even as I sit there across from her imagining the picture, I realize I wouldn’t want to share that photo with the world.