These Photographs

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have cupboards, boxes and bookshelves full of photo albums, forever immortalising the journey from youth to adulthood in a haphazard mishmash of a life chronicled. The first few will be full of the initial endeavours of a young photographer; snapshots of dandelions, paving stones, clouds and windows, captured on a chunky, green plastic camera that began as rolls of film, sent away in an envelope to arrive weeks later on the mat inside the front door. Grainy shots of this and that, the world through the eyes of a child makes way for those of a teenager. Shots of friends, sights, and streets once played upon start to fill boxes to be looked upon a decade later in a quest for evidence: the validity of memories so vivid inside a mind can come into question when an old haunt is visited again. The reality of what is remembered from childhood can be harsh.

I remember each December, as a child, the thrill of getting the boxes of decorations down from the loft; the past eleven months seeming an eternity since I’d last seen them. My parents used to literally deck the halls, stringing up garlands of greenery around the ceilings, covered in red bows and golden bells. The tree would always be huge – always artificial, so nothing had to be cut down, but bushy, big, and covered in lights and ribbon. The memory of everything was so vibrant that, finding those boxes of decorations years later, and seeing them through the eyes of an adult, was disappointing: those same decorations were, in reality, so small and sparse that I had to wonder how they ever seemed so vibrant and rich so many years ago.

The same thing happened to me recently, when I visited home. The streets I grew up on had in childhood seemed so big and full of adventure; we’d gather up all the kids on the street and use the green as our stage, putting on singing, dancing, gymnastics and talent shows for all the neighbours. One side of the street was on a hill, the houses on a slight incline which, years ago, seemed the most exciting thing in the world – we’d gather up all the kids and take our bikes and rollerskates to the top, climbing on the grass, only to hurl ourselves down the pavement as fast as we possibly could. There were cuts and scrapes and bruises, but they proved no match for the exhilaration of the ride untumbled. Walking those same streets only a few weeks ago, I wondered how I ever thought it was so vast, exciting, or dangerous. The hill wasn’t steep, or long, and the walks from my old house to the town centre which had been an entire day out were over within ten minutes. How did the world ever seem so big?

I look to my photos in their books and boxes, and see the evidence en masse. My mind has been playing tricks on me while I wasn’t looking, taking the reality of memories and enhancing them, like a fine wine, making them better, more full of life and character over time than they ever were in the beginning. But I swear it was all real. It was always that way. But these photographs prove otherwise. Do we see the world differently, as a child? Before the world takes a hold of us, shapes us and gives us rules by which to abide, thrusts responsibilities and life lessons upon us along with bills and a work schedule which leaves little room for exploring and imagination? Or was it always that way… and something happens to the memories the further we get away from them. Fact gets mixed up with nostalgia, history with homesickness, reality with reflection, and memories get manufactured into something far brighter and more wonderful than the reality perhaps ever really was. Or perhaps as children, our minds take note of what was considered important at the time. Not the rubbish lining the streets, the jagged paving stones or the neighbours your parents didn’t get along with, but places begging to be filled with adventure. The way the wind felt in your hair as you pedalled as hard as you possibly could.  Finding what now would look like two ordinary hills a few minutes from home, which at the time were huge forts just that little bit further, and thus hidden from the world, a secret playground you could run to when you didn’t want to be found.

I’m still not quite sure if the streets, the parks, and the boxes of decorations changed over time, or if the memories did. But I know I can’t be the only one who remembers things in a slightly rosier hue than perhaps was real. And though these photographs attempt to prove otherwise, there’s something quite magical about memories kept from childhood. Have you revisited somewhere, or something, that you’d remembered differently, and been surprised by the reality?

You can also find this post at Becky’s blog, Love Everyday Life, where she ever so kindly asked me to step in today. 🙂

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39 comments

  1. I know what you mean – but taking the photographs side of your post, I can’t wait to get home (and spend a fortune) to print out all the pictures from our life here. I want to chronicle it AND our travels before it all starts to become distant memories..

    1. I’m guilty of leaving it for too long before printing them too! It’s a time consuming effort, printing out all the memories and archiving them for the future but SO so worth it. You are going to have AMAZING photo albums 🙂

  2. I think both are true, you perceive the world differently as a child and memories change over time. I also think that emotions are combined with memories and may change how we remember things. And of course, as children, we were much smaller, the range of places we could go on our own was much smaller, so as a result the world seemed bigger.
    As for the photos? I haven’t made a single photo album in my adult life. I have all these digital photos and I really need to get around to printing them out and putting them into albums.

    1. Not one?? There’s always the thought in the back of my mind that I’ll lose my digital copies one day (I came close last year!), but I really should do it more… I only tend to print them after I’ve accumulated about 500 lol

      It’s a good point about our range of places we could go on our own being smaller – I think maybe our range of emotions was smaller, too – things were awful, not good, good, or FANTASTIC, and as we grow up and our emotions toward certain things become more complex, it might take what was formerly AMAZING down a few notches with a dose of reality… which kind of sucks

      1. Nope. I do have all good photos up on Flickr though as well as backed up twice so I am not that worried about losing them (Flickr should save them even if my apartment were to burn town). But it would just be nice to have physical albums to leaf through. The thing is, now I have so many pictures that it will not only be really expensive to print them but also really time consuming to put them into albums. But I’ll have to get started eventually.

  3. Okay, first, when I saw the title, I was reaally hoping this was a reference to the song. Which, by the way, I love. Good taste in music! And I think you’re hitting on something huge that may explain why some people aren’t as happy later in life. As a kid, I feel like I personally had lower expectations. I was happier with just a popsicle when the ice cream truck came around or helping my mom make the stuffing at thanksgiving. Then, as we grow older, we expect more and maybe we’re let down more. And we wonder how we could ever be happy with just this little popsicle that’s now melted.

    1. YAY somebody liked the song!! It wasn’t reeeeally related but it had the same title, and it’s such a pretty one 🙂

      I think you have a really great point about expectations – as we grow, so do our expectations of people around us – kids are so easy to satisfy…

  4. have to agree withthe above commenter, i think when we’re little we have littler expectations of the world and what would easily have satisfied a child seems… not as nice thru the eyes of an adult. but the most important thing anyone can do is keep a record of memories throurgh photographs, i know i’ve got a load of albums in boxes upstairs and one day i’ll pass them on to my kids and thy’ll be able to see how we lived…. i wish i could see pics of my parents and theirs growing up. great post em your writing was just gorgeous in this one, and love that song at the end, so pretty!

  5. I recently laughed with my parents over memories that morph, the things we do and do not remember, or at least the way others remember it. That’s the beauty of the mind and I suppose life… we all have different views and interpretations of the “truth.”

    1. That’s always funny – what can be SO accurate to you can be so completely different to someone else. Usually involving situations with disagreements I find… I think over time the mind naturally finds a way of remembering things in a way that lines up with our own values, which usually aren’t exactly the same as everybody else’s anyway, so that may be a very good point as to why memories of the same thing can differ so much!

  6. I agree with Karen… I think both is true, we perceived the world differently as children (that’s why it was such fun to be children, don’t you think?) and memories just change over time. I think it’s like this for most people and it’s kind of sad to realize as an adult that things that were so sparkling and glorious when we were kids, are in fact, nothing special through the eyes of an adult.
    I think that’s why we all need to remain kids in part of our hearts… to be able to go back to this “view” that we used to have on the world, even if it is for a short moment.

  7. I think we perceive the world better as a child. With more positive, life-hungry eyes. We are “one” with everything the world has to offer, flowing in endless natural energy. Sometimes I wonder if that energy we have lost is a result of being clogged up by worry, stress and doubt…I believe this is where true fatigue comes from.

    Of course we embellish memories, but they stem from a genuine place. A place where we thought magic was real and life was extra special.

  8. This is such a lovely, introspective post! I can definitely relate with the realization, upon looking at old photographs, that the way you remember things is so often not the way they really were. But having those photographs, even if they reveal the disillusionment of the past, is such a treasure for me. I think without them, I might not remember those moments at all, so I’ll take the remembering-with-a-hint-of-sadness over not remembering at all. 😛

  9. I’ve felt less excited about photographs as I’ve gotten older. I trust to my memory a lot, so it’s usually enough for me to have BEEN there… even without a few albums on Facebook to prove it. I don’t have hardly any pictures from my childhood or teen years, and none from my first marriage, but Micah keeps all of our photos digitally on her hard drive and CD’s/DVD’s (for backup). She’s always the one holding the camera, wherever we go, or handing it to me to take a picture of us. This doesn’t mean I don’t still take pictures or love photography as art. I just don’t need to keep a visual log of the places I go and the things I do, unless I want to keep it for an album or discuss it later.

    I’ve only revisited my childhood stomping grounds once or twice in the years since I’ve moved away, and it’s actually just as unimpressive as when I lived there. I grew up in a very small town and, despite the sense of adventure I had for the boondocks around us, I explored everything there was to do while I was younger. It doesn’t have anything else to offer.

    I think we do see the world differently as a child. For example, I could never have imagined that by 30 I would have visited Japan and have friends in Canada and France and Bulgaria. A lot of this comes from what I call my “small town complex,” where I didn’t believe world travel was possible to me because the world was so huge and separate from my tiny environment. I don’t envy my child self, or my teen self, because it’s taken a long time for me to discover who I am.

  10. I love how you wrote this Emily. It’s amazing how our memories are shaped by who we are and what we do and that we may remember something a different way than someone else.

    Love the song too!

  11. I love looking back at pictures. I do print less and less now with digital pictures…and I totally delete all the blurry ones! I agree that the world was different as a kiddo because we were smaller. There are so many things that happen that I just try and capture in my mind because I know I won’t have a picture of them. I do take a tooooooon of pictures though because I love looking back at good memories. My future brother-in-law always groans when I take pictures but I take them anyway!

  12. Beautifully written! I was reading along and couldn’t help but think I knew her! I was like, “Hey! We put on shows on our street, too!” And then when she got to the part about one side of the street being up on a hill, I began to think Emily Jane was a pseudonym for Meghan, Laura or Lindsey — my best friends on my street.

    I feel just like this every time I go home. Thanks, Emily Jane!

  13. Oh my gosh… EVERY DAY!!! I’m a grade 10 teacher, and it is really hilarious, disheartening, frustrating, endearing etc. to watch the kids work their way through their problems of the heart/mind/family. It basically invalidates every feeling I had as a teenager. I now see that all of the terrible injustices were brought on by me and my friends, all of my heartbreak was completely unnecessary (the guys never care as much as the girls do), and all of my moments of elation were probably just me getting over-excited about fairly mundane things. But you will be happy to know that Harry Potter is still EXTREMELY popular 🙂

  14. Oh yes, this definitely happened to me. I ran the Twin Cities Marathon in 2006; there is this hill at mile 21 that everyone talks about. I never trained on it, so when I ran the marathon, I was running that hill for the first time. And it was MASSIVE. Like it felt like I was climbing a mountain. Then there was an incline for the final 6 miles (cruel, right?).

    Well, last year I did the 10 mile race on marathon weekend. I hit that hill at mile 4 of this race and let me tell you, while it was a challenging incline, it was NO WHERE NEAR as massive as I remembered it. And those last 6 miles of the race? I didn’t feel like I was running at an incline. But the marathon plays tricks on the mind. The exhaustion blows things out of proportion. It makes a hill feel like a mountain. It makes a slight incline so difficult.

    But I think life is the same. I think there are things that sort of ‘elevate’ experiences. We fall in love at a young age and everything seems glossy and new and fabulous, and then we look back on those memories and see them for what they really were (boy I sound cynical saying that). The mind definitely plays tricks on us.

  15. I used to print pictures and put them in a scrap book. But that was back when
    cameras needed film and had to be developed. Now, all I do is save it in my PC and
    upload it on Facebook if I have time. LOL. After reading this, I realized I really need to print those. 🙂

  16. I’ve stepped away from blogging for a bit (that certainly wasn’t my intention, but I’m working a return!), and I’ve really missed reading your posts, Em. It’s funny you wrote about this topic, because I’m currently spending a lot of time sifting through my old photos and turning them into scrapbooks. And with some of the photos, I thought this very thing. I think we do see things differently as a child, and as we grow older and keep those memories tucked away, our minds do have a tendency to turn them into more than they actually were. I lived in a lot of places growing up, and we now live only 2 hours from one place that was my home for 8 years. I really want to visit it, but in a way, I’m wondering if I will be disappointed because it’s not as grand as I remember it!

    1. I’ve missed your posts too! I hope when you do visit your old home, it still holds a bit of magic – even going back to England and seeing all the dirt and disarray in my hometown, just being there and remembering the happy experiences of childhood was still wonderful. I think you just have to take the reality and the nostalgia and make the best of both worlds…

  17. Beautiful post! You’re such a great writer, Emily 🙂

    I think, as a child, we see things new, we see them without expectations or previous memories so it’s all wonderful and amazing. Once we have something to compare it to, that’s when things get a little tarnished and why as adults we don’t see things the same way. When I was younger I used to think my Grandmother’s house was a treasure trove of items and the backyard was enormous. I remember making it into the back gardens and thinking I was so far away from the house, I was really having an adventure now. Once I grew up though I realized that her backyard was quite small and the back gardens not at all far as far away as I remembered thinking they were. It’s amazing how perspective changes..,

  18. I just returned from a week-long journey into my childhood memories………… many wonderful times were immortalized into photographs that I packed away in boxes and shipped home from my grandmother’s house in New Jersey. I laughed. I cried. And I’m thankful for each and every memory whether it was captured in a photograph or simply in my head. All of those moments have made me who I am today, which is completely blessed.

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