September 09, 2011

Cameraphobia and memory

I had the rare and lovely opportunity last week to post a blog entry by Martin King (scroll down to see it) and to write a piece for his blog. I've been working on a novel that explores memory: I believe in what comes through me, in what I’ve been told and what I guess. Yet I have doubts about the truth, about my belief in the power of flawed memory and of what we carry from the past, passed on by parent to child without words, with actions like my father’s pacing at the water’s edge.

And so my father, who closes that sentence, his memory, haunts me. I moved away from the novel—ever so briefly, am obsessed with it—and back smack into memoir to write this slice of my childhood and where I am now:
Mary, my father and mother


I’m afraid of cameras.
Laughing, my father, who died a decade ago, would say “camera-phobia” when he tried to take moving pictures of me as a child. I think he made that word up, wry jokester that he was. I’ve seen these eight millimeter terrors: a two year-old crying on the wooden floor of a covered porch while my father stands behind the camera. My sister would later say, “Silly girl, you were just afraid because you couldn’t see him. The camera in front of his face scared you. You have no phobia.” But I’m not sure—even though many photos of me now exist.
My father’s absence in a photograph began the morning-mares, the terror that occurs right before waking so that I’m sure to recall it. They strike me like a memory that hasn’t happened yet.
Here’s what happened. My father had a cousin named Cecelia who died this fall. I went to the funeral and then the shiva. My cousin, her son Howard, showed me the family photograph. It is the only family photo of my father’s parents and his six brothers and sisters and stands as proof of who they were—and he’s not in it. I don’t have a picture of my father when he was a child—not a single picture. 
The only photos that mark my father’s existence begin with his marriage to my mother. He came to her with one shopping bag with everything he owned, that included one small framed photo of his mother Hannah that sits now on one of my book-lined shelves in the condo where I write. She died before I was born.
So did Mary, my mother’s mother. I carry her name. Her wedding picture to my grandfather I found like a revelation when I reframed a painting of my mother when she was young. This painting was done by her girlhood friend Gertie. The frame was broken. So I took it to be redone and behind the paper backing, like a secret, was the photo of my grandparents. There she was, young, as I had never seen her. I have one other photo of her when she was old: a small photo that everyone in the family on my mother’s side owns. I’ve seen it in all their tiny flats where they retired from larger homes and modest careers and where most of them died.
I am confounded by my father’s absence in the single photo from his childhood and by the fact that my grandmother’s wedding photo was behind the painting of my mother, the painting that she or my grandmother had framed, the photo that one of them had hidden.
The morning-mares: In all the dreams, I am missing. A blank spot is left where my photo should be as if I’ve done something to deserve to be forgotten, not recorded in rotogravure and camera-phobia re-defined.
My sister is in the piece but not the photo: haunting because she died young though not when that photo was taken. I posted that to remind myself of what the photo leaves out and how that's worth writing about.
I close today with thanks to Martin King whose prompt: a good one was "childhood memory". Write from that prompt and visit Martin King's blog with my thanks! His #100BlogFest is over but what a helluva good time he had, meeting writers and bloggers all over the world—and connecting us all!


  1. What a moving piece, Mary. What a tug on heartstrings. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Love your thoughts about what is "passed on from parent to child without words" and the subsequent recollection of the two generations of family photos with mysteriously missing children (and how that now haunts your dreams) . . evocative and beautifully written (and I bet these recollections will "feed" your novel, which also sounds intriquing). Thanks for sharing!

  3. Wonderful story, Mary. Sounds like your father, too, suffered from "cameraphobia." More than likely there is a much deeper mystery, begging to be uncovered. Please keep me posted. I want more. :-)

  4. I too am haunted by missing photos...none of my grandmother as a child, none with her 2 sisters, none of her parents...where did they go? And my grandfather, with his parents and one brother, what about the other 6 siblings? And also all the unidentified relatives, sitting with my mother trying to name them when she no longer had the words. If you have photos, label them, now. I also wonder about all these digital photos never printed, will they just disappear into the air?
    Wonderful and thought-provoking words, as usual.

  5. Dear Taylor, Laura, ficwriter and Wendy,

    Thank you so much for the swift and encouraging response to "Cameraphobia and memory." Your comments encourage me in my lyrical approach to the essay and my new work. I once heard Derek Walcott lecture on the issue of "The Photo" and was moved by his insights that went something like this if memory serves: The photographer documents and has for Walcott anyway ethical obligations on "what he leaves out," including himself, as in the case of the famous photo of the self-immolation of a man during the Vietnam war. So this topic has ramifications well beyond memory.

    I am so gratified that you see this blog as a place worth visiting.

  6. Family photos seem to raise more questions than they answer. Maybe this is why writers are so fascinated with them!

  7. Love this topic. I've been working on a short story for a while now about my great-grandmother and a tiny black and white picture of her. Who was she? What was she all about? I didn't know Hannah personally, only through my grandmother, so I'm curious and wonder if we were anything alike. It's good to wonder ... writers are great at wondering ... it takes us so many places ... in our hearts & spirits. Thanks, Mary, for sharing your world with us. --Daisy

  8. Readers, all, coming Friday is a guest post by the lovely insightful poet and short story writer Helen Mallon, Hekenqp above. Her post is great, warm and more-- and I will be posting it with my comments and her photos. Come back to read!

  9. Daisy, Thank you for stopping by and reading a glimpse into my novel, memoir here but will have to fictionalize to do the search through "memory" or what comes to me in ways I'll not ever understand and perhaps don't want to. Yes, the photo of those we have heard about, been spoken to about, are related to but never knew: these are evocative of a thread of the unknown and perhaps knowable.


All comments are moderated and welcomed. Please do not post links to sell stuff from your site or another site, however.