Why I Can’t Throw Away Old Photos
You know one of those parlour games that classifies people: “In this world, there are two types of people, those who are such-and such and those who are (the opposite).” In that vein, allow me to ask you this: are you the type who can throw away old photographs, or are you the type who likes to hang on to them, seemingly forever?
Like my late parents, I’m definitely of the latter type. Many a time I would try to tidy up the living room or my study, only to end up with a sigh, not knowing what to do with the considerable quantity of photos that have accumulated over the years. Forget for now those digital photos that can be stored in large quantities, in disks or whatever. I’m talking about the colour prints, slides and black-and-white photos of the passing analog era, even including some sepia-toned ones going back to my childhood days.
Stuck in albums old and relatively new, or just bundled and stuffed in boxes, they take up quite a bit of space on bookcase shelves, in the closet and even on top of the desk in my study. Just over the last three decades, there are photos from Singapore, where I moved from Tokyo in 1981 and lived for 16 years, including the marriage to my wife and the infancies of my son, born in ’91, and my daughter, born in ’93, and those from our early years in Vancouver, where we moved in ’97.
They cover right up to the present, the children by now rebellious teenagers who don’t spend as much time at home as they used to (another sigh…). They show myriad faces and scenes from overseas trips, school and church events, Christmas get-togethers at home or at friends’ places, all somehow linked together by the thread of my memory. As subjects go, there’s nothing special or extraordinary about them. I tend to value them in terms of that highly personal emotion called nostalgia that they trigger in me. Maybe that’s why I rarely take out an old album or photos tucked away in boxes to gaze at.
There must be quite a number of “low interest” photos that can be chucked out, but I don’t bother. If I were to separate the ones I don’t want, I would have to look through them all. The physical effort would be next to nothing but I hesitate, and seriously. Maybe I’m beginning to feel the weight of the memories many of the photographs bring back.
Parents usually carry with them some unforgettable “definitive images” of their children from their early childhood, photos serving as their record and substantiation. My daughter, about 8 years old, reading out loud from a book of fairytales to our family dog, who was like her, just a puppy . . . we can’t forget the time we brought the female puppy home from a breeder, because it was the day before the world-shaking event of September 11th, 2001. My son, about the same age, squatting down and playing with tiny Pokemon figures with his buddies in the schoolyard . . . a scene I snapped to go with an article “Canadian Kids Crazy about Pokemon” that I sent to a Japanese magazine.
Our family trip to Disneyland—fulfilling a promise to the kids—feels like only yesterday, though it goes back several years. “If we want to enjoy family fun at Disneyland, we should go while the kids still want to,” we said back then. So we went to see Mickey and Minnie, and sure enough the kids soon moved on. Even more recent photos (and finally digital) from last summer when we went to the Mexican seaside resort at Ixtapa, show them with faces seemingly more innocent than they are today.
As for my wife, the many facial expressions and situations from the time we got to know each other back in Singapore right up to now inevitably lead to one thought, among others: how much hardship she must have endured both as a wife and a mother. Perhaps male readers of my age bracket would understand. And, as much as I hate to confront it, there is my own gradual ageing process. It’s so terrible that it forces me to cling on to the illusion that the face I see in the mirror every day is not as bad as that. Photographs are cruel, they say, and surely not with respect to just 40- or 50-something actresses and models.
Also inevitably at this stage in my life, there are photos showing the smiling faces of those who have already passed on, such as parents, relatives, friends, colleagues and so on. I guess that’s what I meant earlier by “the weight of the memories.” There is, of course, sadness. At the same time, I feel strongly as an unabashed romantic (one of the dictionary definitions being “one who chases dreams”) that I want to keep the memories of the happy days with those who have moved on as intact as possible.
As I have been in Canada now for about 12 years, there are some among my acquaintances in the Nikkei/ijusha community too who have already departed. But I tend to stay away from memorial gatherings and such, even though I’m aware of the breach of social etiquette I may be committing. It is quite selfish of me, but I would rather not say a “formal goodbye” to those who live on forever in my memory. They were —and are—all wonderful praiseworthy people each in his/her own way. By not bidding them farewell, I’m sort of asking these people to live on, to “stay alive,” if that makes any sense.
I just remembered something I heard a long time ago. There are people of primitive tribes who shun cameras because they believe their souls would be “captured” if they are photographed.