REFLECTION: We were there

Cameron Gorman

Cameron Gorman

Cameron Gorman

Every time we go somewhere as a family, I know to expect it. My mother has her phone on her at all times, and it’s mostly there to be used as a camera. (Sometimes, when she can’t find it, that’s exactly what she’ll end up shouting: “Where is my camera?”)

Photos are important to her. She’s not a professional photographer, she doesn’t own a DSLR, she doesn’t say she “makes” images instead of takes them. No, she’s just like most of us: Armed with a cellphone camera on an iPhone 7 Plus, she arranges us around all sorts of things. The pink front door to our house on Easter, the bow of a pontoon boat in Ohio, behind my brother on his 19th birthday. She has a million photos on her phone for every one that gets posted to Facebook, a million snapshots of my sister whirling onstage at a dance competition that weren’t taken at exactly the right time. Not too long ago, she brought her phone to me — it wasn’t working, and she needed help. The photo storage, once again, had completely filled up and was causing the thing to crash. We had to buy her extra cloud storage.

It has always been like this. Before people carried cameras around in their cell phones, she had a digital camera. Before there were cameras that could record quality video, we had a bulky video recorder, the kind you’d have to hold by a hand strap on the side of its body. My mother has always been a documenter of our lives. Of course, because I am 22 and my sister and brothers are teenagers, there is whining when we stand together for a portrait on holidays. Why, we ask her in our complaining voices. Can you just take the picture already? You’d better not be posting this on Facebook.

I’d be lying if I said that I never say these things anymore — that I never get a tad embarrassed when my mom organizes me into position for a photo-op in the middle of a busy hallway or a crowd. But the older I get, the more part of me does appreciate being able to look back on myself, on my siblings, on big events — and have our memories preserved. Of course it’s nice to be able to remember how you looked — what kind of clothes you were into, what strange phase you were going through.

But more than that, I think it’s knowing that she cares. As I went through her phone with her, helping to delete some older photos and upload others to Google’s photo service, I scrolled past pictures my mother had taken on whims — herself in the car, after work. My brother and her, together, on a trip. Photos of me and my boyfriend wading through the shallows of a river, while we were not looking back at her. These photos were certainly more well-posed — more well lit, more thought out. But, looking at these candid shots, I realized something. These were real life, these were me and you and my mother, not as we wanted to be remembered, but as we were. When I look back at my own camera roll, I don’t know if even I have done such a true and faithful job at remembering my family and friends and self as she has. I keep paper. I hoard it almost, and it fills up boxes and boxes in my closet. Little notes written to me from people who have passed on, invitations to be a flower girl at an aunt’s wedding, birthday cards from my Nana. Little things that, had someone well-versed in Kondo-ing seen them, might be good candidates for a clean-out. I thought the same thing about my mother’s snapshots. I moved to delete some of them — just double takes, some that were of my brother’s side profile, photos of us all against some unidentified summer background. “No, don’t!” My mother protested.

I sighed. Come on, I said, or something to the effect of it, probably followed up by How often are you really going to look at these? My mother paid no mind. She simply asked me if she would be able to recover them once they’d been moved up to the storage in the sky. I confirmed it. Yes, she could find them, and re-download them to the device, if she so desired. It seemed to have been the right answer.

Do I think my mother will ever pull those little moments down from the cloud again? Me, sitting on the sunporch, a laptop in my hands? My brothers in their wrestling gear, together on a trip to a tournament? I don’t know. It’s possible that all those things we stowed away in the attic of her phone might be brought down again, just as quickly. It’s possible that she might never look at some of them again, or at least not go looking for them specifically. But the important thing, to me — and to her, too — is that those photos are there. We were there. And my mother cared enough to help us remember that.

Cameron Gorman is a columnist and an illustrator. Contact her at [email protected]