The red maple that stood in my Aunt Phyllis’s front yard was brilliant. Towering. Startling in its vibrancy. In the fall in her later years, she’d call to us next door, asking for someone to please bring a camera and capture the tree in all its autumn splendour.
One of these times, I came over and took shot after shot, knowing the images would be pretty much the same as the year before, yet not wanting to miss an angle. I was captivated by the beauty I saw through the lens and conscious of how important the tree was to her. Deep in my heart I also knew there wouldn’t be too many autumns left with her. She died last year at the age of 94.
Aunt Phyllis – an honorary aunt, but as important and as loved as any aunt could be – had an impressive collection of photographs. These included black-and-white pictures of relatives, images from her childhood – she was born in 1915 – and colour snapshots of friends. A family historian and writer, she deeply valued the connections and interconnections that the pictures represented. And she enjoyed pointing out people – and pets – to us and telling the stories behind the photos.
There were also pictures representing her 40 years of friendship with our family. Aunt Phyllis never married and had no children. When I was just a few months old, my parents moved next door with my two brothers and me. It didn’t take long for her to become an integral part of our lives. She was always our Aunt Phyllis.
And how she loved us – she never missed a chance to celebrate and cheer us on through every milestone and special event. These occasions were duly recorded in photographs – taken first by plastic boxes with flash cubes on top, by a Polaroid camera for a brief time and, eventually, by sleek digital numbers.
No matter how advanced the technology or how gifted the photographer might be, however, the images couldn’t live up to the moments themselves.
Photos of my brothers and me in costumes for school plays, or dressed up for concerts or recitals, don’t tell of the tailbone-numbing metal seats that my parents and Aunt Phyllis endured for hours on end. Pictures of us gathered around a festive dining-room table wearing paper crowns can’t convey the jubilant ringing in of the New Year or the wistful sounds of Auld Lang Syne. Annual images of the two of us blowing out candles together might catalogue changing fashions and hairstyles, but don’t communicate what it meant to me to have a birthday twin and loving aunt living right next door.
Perhaps it is what they don’t show that makes me ambivalent about photographs. But my love-hate relationship with them is also tied to what they do show.
It’s joyful to see pictures of one of my grandmothers with Aunt Phyllis at the beach on a beautiful day, and my other grandmother with her at a ladies luncheon, but it’s hard to accept that all three are now gone. It’s entertaining to look at snapshots of my brothers and me growing up, but it’s difficult to come to terms with the alarming acceleration of time. It’s heartwarming to see images of my parents throughout their 50 years of marriage, but it’s unbearable to think there will be a time when they won’t be here.
In short, there are times when I am delighted to have photographs, and others when I think it would be better if there were no pictures at all.
So why not just rely on mental snapshots, letting personal recollections provide the details, senses the colour and emotions the sentiment? This would be ideal if our memories and those of our loved ones were infallible and complete. But they aren’t.
I might not recall the childhood magic shows that my brothers put on if it weren’t for the snapshot of one of them holding a baton and sporting a black mustache – courtesy of a burnt cork – and the other draped in a scarf and looking mysterious.
I might never have known that my father’s father, who was in advertising, met Doris Day, Kirk Douglas and other celebrities if it weren’t for the pictures I have of him with the stars.
I wouldn’t remember the day my mother and father stood side by side in a farmer’s field, a bunch of muddy leeks in their hands and luminous smiles on their faces on an annual family trip to the Annapolis Valley, if it weren’t for a photograph.
And so the uneasy relationship continues. I do have a few pictures in my office and many more at home, and I still take photos, but most are kept in my head. And in that mental collection is a display dedicated to Aunt Phyllis.
One image has her and her beloved friends setting out for a drive where they will enthusiastically travel Nova Scotia’s byways before finishing up at a rural church supper.
Another shows her sitting on our living-room couch in front of a blazing fire tended by my brother, laughing heartily over reminiscences of the elaborate April Fool’s tricks that we delighted in playing on her.
And then there is one that could only exist in my mind’s eye. Here we are all together – family and friends, past and present – surrounding Aunt Phyllis. She is young, beautiful and tall, and she is looking up with a smile on her face at a towering red maple.
Marie Weeren lives in Halifax.
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