Memoir About A Photograph: Mom, Dad, and Intricate Pillars
By Peggy Freeburg
My parents are sitting on the front porch of the house in South Dakota where I spent the first 17 years of my life. Their hair is still black, so I must have been very small. I only remember them as my dad gray, my mom graying, both with beautiful hair.
Mom isn’t wearing glasses. I don’t remember her without them. Dad is reading the newspaper. He read every bit of printed matter that came into our house. At that time I couldn’t fathom why he would read our history and geography books when no teacher said he had to. And he would ask us if we would please bring them home again the next night. His formal schooling stopped after the third grade, but his education never stopped.
Dad has his stocking feet propped against the pillar of the porch. When he and Mom would sit down in the evening to relax, my task was to take off their shoes – a nightly ritual. I remember crisscrossing the laces to release them from the hooks on Dad’s shoes.
Mom is sitting and looking – not very animated, maybe chewing on a toothpick. Nary a day goes by now that I do not chew on a toothpick.
The window is closed in the photo, but we could slide the panes to have it open at the top and at the bottom. We had adjustable screens we could put in an opening to help keep out the flies. But flies we had. They would get so thick that we would all (except the men) gather to “chase flies.”
We would close all the doors and windows except one. We would each take a couple of white flour-sack dishtowels and line up at the back of the living room, stretching as much as possible completely across the room. Then we would slowly walk towards the kitchen and chase the flies out the door.
Usually we’d have to go back and make a second sweep of the rooms. They didn’t make as much noise as a herd of cattle, but it was just as difficult to “herd” them where we wanted them to go.
Notice the intricate detail on the pillars. That is the only claim to grandeur that this little square house had. And it did not last forever. We moved to Washington when I graduated from high school, and one of my brothers moved into the house. He was not much of a go-getter, and I was saddened at the speedy way the house deteriorated.
Yes, the house was old, but it was no longer loved the way we had loved it. A friend made a trip to our mutual hometown and brought me back a snapshot of the house. One of the pillars had fallen down and was lying askew on the porch where it had fallen – most likely not just that day.
The whole house is gone now, and a furniture store stands in its place. But I wonder if the great-great-grandchildren of that little toad in the foreground are still hopping around in the grass.
Learning from Sample Essay Two
In what I call “photo writing,” the writer closely examines a photograph from the past and pieces together a story or scenario that adds background information to the information provided by the photo itself.
In this sample, Peggy Freeberg begins with a photograph of her parents sitting on the porch of the home in which Peggy grew up. She notices every detail, beginning with her parents themselves. She notes, for example, that both parents have dark hair although she doesn’t remember them as having anything other than gray, or graying, hair. Indeed Peggy was the “baby” of the family and was quite young when this photo was taken.
Peggy also notices the absence of glasses on her mother. She cannot remember her mother without glasses, so this photo gives her a window into aspects of the past that she cannot consciously remember.
From the simple observation of her father reading the newspaper, Peggy is reminded of how important reading was to her father. She adds information about her father’s love of reading and how he even insisted on the children bringing home their school books for him to read.
Peggy also observes her father’s sock feet, an observation that sparks a memory of the way she used to untie his laces at the end of a long day.
The detail of her mother chewing on a toothpick, a habit which Peggy seems to have inherited without conscious awareness, is touching. Have you ever visited a relative and had that jolt of recognition when you see that the relative shares a habit or preference with you? Perhaps you have both painted your kitchens the same color or carry your bags the same way. Maybe you take your coffee the same and even both stir it with a fork. These small intimate details can often be discovered in a photo if you take the time to look very closely at each one. Peggy shares with us this kind of discovery when she notes a shared habit between her and her mother.
In examining the background, the place itself, Peggy also draws sensitively on what is provided in the photo. She notices the “intricate pillars” on this modest farmhouse porch and proceeds to tell about how this house eventually fell into disrepair. The strength and beauty of the pillars suggests the strength and beauty of Peggy’s parents who, sadly, are no longer alive.
Peggy notes the window in the background and this reminds her of the way family members would chase flies out the windows on hot summer days. This is a perfect example of wrapping a story around a single aspect of a photograph, an aspect which would most likely go unnoticed if not elaborated by a written memory.
Finally, Peggy ends her “photo writing” on a light note by bringing the viewer’s attention to what appears to be a big frog in the left foreground of the photograph. Not only does this add humor, but it also evokes feelings of a simple life on the prairie, a life shared with frogs and other wildlife.. . the childhood Peggy remembers.
Why don’t you look though your own photo collection and see if you can write a story around a photo of your own choosing? The best photos for this kind of essay are informal candid shots rather than formal posed studio shots. The more authentic the background the better. Have fun!