Were We Happy Then?

An untouched shelf of scrapbooks graces my study.

For about seven years, I scrapbooked.  I started rather narcissistically with my childhood pictures stored at my mother’s home.  They were housed in those cling-page albums which I’d just discovered damaged photos, causing paper deterioration and fading.  Knowing my mom would hate to lose all visual memories of her only daughter (cue violin), I rather reluctantly took up scrapbooking.

As background information, I’ll disclose that I flunked cutting, pasting, and coloring in kindergarten and first grade.  I could read, write, and do math with ease by age five, but I cared little for carefully coloring and cutting pictures that began with the letter B, then pasting them into their proper worksheet page.  Perhaps glue sticks would have spared me one of these failures, but this was 35 years ago.  White pots with gooey paste to be spread with splayed brushes ruled the classroom of my childhood, and neatness seemed impossible with such crude tools.  Cutting and coloring?  Boring and best done as quickly as possible.

So when I approached my neighborhood scrapbooking lady, a nearby friend, I told her I wanted to create a simple scrapbook to rescue these pictures for my mother.  No frills, minimal tools, and quick results.  I revealed my early elementary traumas t0 her, and she quickly set me to work, teaching me how to use cutting tools and templates, double-sided adhesives and stickers.  She was reassuring and endlessly patient.  Fairly quickly, I filled two large albums.  My mother was delighted.  I was hooked.

For the next seven years, I chronicled our lives in scrapbooks.  I created a baby album for my oldest, who had the misfortune to be born before I understood the importance of taking pictures in numbers with the limits of 12 by 12 pages in mind.  No more single shots.  Think in threes or fours for a single page, more for a double spread.  Think themes and colors.  Plan ahead for scrapbooking.  While I never graduated to grommets or stamping, I developed a modest assortment of paper and the like.  I stuck to my quick pages, enjoying seeing the albums fill more than creating a single page that could be designated a work of art.  I wanted to preserve our happiness.

The caption reads, "It's not the home I love, but the life that is lived there."

But the happiness stopped.  Not all of a sudden, not ever completely, but finding it thought the viewfinder became increasingly difficult.  By 2007, looking at the pictures brought fewer smiles and pleasant memories.  Sure, the kids’ birthdays and milestones still brought pleasure, but whole-family shots were less common and almost always tinged with memories of an argument or strain with my then-husband.  While I’ve heard it said that our memories of past events are shaped by our current situation, the few family shots from this time felt like lies.  Family vacations had ceased.  Holidays were filled with stress.  My then-husband graced fewer and fewer pictures, and by 2008, the number of pictures I took fell dramatically.

My last scrapbooking work took place in March 2008.  At a local hotel, I spent two days scrapbooking, stopping only to eat and sleep. This was my second such event, and it was a break from an increasingly rocky home situation.  It was hard to work on albums of smiling faces knowing the pain that was behind many of the photographed events. Vacation plans altered, arguments argued, sadness endured.  Being a hopeful person, I purchased supplies for the wedding album I’d never made, planning to make that my next scrapbook.  My magical thinking (and two days away from a toxic relationship) brought forth a desire to chronicle the event.  Perhaps I thought preserving it on paper would preserve the marriage in life.

Hours upon returning home, my marriage essentially ended, although I spent the next year trying to resuscitate it.  By the end of the day I returned from my weekend away, the boys and I had the house to ourselves, and my separation began.

I’ve never scrapbooked since.  I’ve digitally made a few albums for family, but my supplies unused except by the boys for art projects.  The papers for my unmade wedding album collect dust on a top shelf, out of sight.  I’ve found other creative outlets in the past few years, namely knitting and writing.  I take far fewer pictures now, although thanks to the boys, the foster cats are exceptionally well documented.   The year following our separation is nearly photo-free, although my parents do have some documentation that we continued to live, smile, and enjoy life during that exceptionally hard time.

I look back on pictures from the few years preceding our divorce and wonder, “Were we happy then?”  Smiles fill the photos, but most are taken over birthday cakes and presents, or, in the case of my younger, in the presence of a cat.  Few contain all three of us.  Fewer contain their father.  And none show four people together.  It’s in the final of those photos with the two of us, the last family and couple shots, it’s those that raise the happiness question.  And the answer is often simple.  We wanted to be.  Perhaps posing for those photos, we wanted to recapture what filled our live and the albums of years long past:  love, happiness, family peace.

But those days were gone.  Separation lead to divorce.  Memories colored by years of tension distort the narrative of past, and except for the annual review of the boys’ baby albums, performed on their respective birthdays, the albums remain untouched.  Perhaps someday I’ll be able to look through without wistful tears, not for a relationship destroyed then divided but for the wholeness that even an unhappy marriage seemed to stand for.  A whole family, two parents, two kids.  Intact.  Determined to work together through the hard times.  Committed.

I know better.  I know that separate lives can lead to wholeness and health for adults and children.  I know that sometime marriage must end because it’s been put asunder in ways that can’t be healed.  And I know we’re better off.  The boys, my ex-husband, me.  It’s the image of family, an image pervading each scrapbook on the top shelf, the image of happiness together that still brings the tears.  The death of an image, marriage to one person, till death do us part.  That’s my wound, and time does help heal it, albeit slowly.  After over two years as a threesome, the boys and I have new rituals and habits, new ways of working in a different family unit.  Similarly, they’re developing new patterns in their father’s home.  We’re all finding our way.  And mostly, we’re happy.

Still, I rarely take pictures.  The boys continue to catalogue the cats, and I bring it out for birthdays and necessary blog photo-taking sessions.  But I’m not recording life in photos, and I remain scrapbook-avoidant.   As the boys grow and change, I keep prodding myself to record this time, to not create a visual black hole to match the emotional one I crawled out of last year.  But it’s hard to return to my photo-snapping years when life seemed certain and marriage seemed, well, permanent.  I’m older, wiser, and far more happy than I’ve been in many years.  The few photos I do take hold less emotional baggage than those of the previous years. They hold peace and happiness in their moments, and they hold memories of family of a different but no less worthy kind.   And that’s enough.

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4 thoughts on “Were We Happy Then?

  1. I’ve thought about this before too, Sarah. I gave up on scrapbooking 10 years ago. It just seemed like alot of “fussiness,” and I also wondered about the tendency to stage ones life to look good in scrapbooks. I take less pictures now too, just a few highlights from every year. The kids will enjoy them later, as I enjoy my childhood pictures, even though not all the memories are happy ones. If we also remember to include some written info about some of the events we’ve photographed, our kids will probably appreciate knowing details that might otherwise have been forgotten. But I’m not up nights worrying that I made a first year scrapbook for Meredith, but not her younger sisters. We can all only do so much, and perfection is a mirage anyhow. Personally, I prefer my mental snapshots. Pictures may trigger memories, but they don’t necessarily convey the true experience as it was. And I think that blogging–the intellectual process of writing and analyzing about what matters to us in our lives–can be a beneficial way to evolve as mature adults, as it opens up dialog, and gets us really thinking (which is exciting!) It’s not necessarily an alternative to scrapbooking, but it’s a different way to share who we are. Thanks for continuing to share here; your blog is a real inspiration to me.

  2. Sarah, I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog. I love how you take one small peice of life and relate it to the larger picture. It’s funny, for me… I never scrapbooked and rarely take pictures. I guess I am so busy living in the moment that photos seem sort of staged and unecessary, a false break in the action of living. Although I often wish that I had those memories to preserve for my children, and myself when I age and my memory falters. You know, perhaps your kids would like to chronicle their own lives via an online scrapbook tool. I’ve seen them done before, all digital. It might be a good way for them to work through the changes in their lives. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. interesting, I’m finding myself in the opposite situation. I have no scrapbooks, no baby albums, no printed photos at all. I’ve always meant to do something with the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of digital photos stored in various places but never have. Suddenly, in the last few weeks I’ve been struck by a desire to put our lives on paper. Perhaps it’s because I’m doing better than I ever did before?

    This post does make me sad though, particularly when you talk about not having pictures of the 3 of you, or the 4. We don’t have those either. Hundreds and hundreds of pictures of our children and very, very few of us. I sometimes think that a loving couple would want to take pictures of the parents with the kids, would want their beloved partner in the picture. So what does that mean for us?

  4. Pingback: Fireworks on Film « Finding My Ground

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