Amber

I held up a photograph, crisp and grey, and asked: Who is the bride? Fierce eyes, I thought. Pale hair covered in lace and orange blossom.

I was asking this of one of my grandmothers, my mother's mother, the one who seemed disappointed, worn and often on the edge of fury. She looked at me from above the deep half-moons of soft skin that puddled below — it came to me then — those eyes.

“Me,” she said.

Now, emptying a forgotten closet shelf, I am thinking of the difference between that photograph, which looked classic even then, even to my child’s eye, and the handful of Instamatic photos spilling onto the floor in front of me. 

Those snapshots, with their lazy focus, the way they yellowed bright sunlight and thickened indoor light, they are bad records and yet perfect, in a way; they look like memory looks to me in my own mind, as though it has been trapped in amber.

They are very ordinary images. When we were in high school we took a lot of photos, with cartridges and flash cubes, crowded into pleasant dens and rec rooms in north London, Ont. near the university gates, with playing cards, squat brown beer bottles, red packs of du Mauriers, and Rumours or Hotel California.

We took photos when we trekked through yellow-brick neighbourhoods during the late 1970s’ big snows. With a parent’s station wagon, a phlegmy transistor radio and feeble sunscreen we passed torpid afternoons on the sand at Grand Bend – more photos.

We had different geometry then, fortyish years ago. Our cheeks were fuller and higher and our jaws neat and narrow. Our newly-adult bodies did not yet feel like ours. They were reedy and sensitive and alive to the moment. We thrummed like elastics to hilarity, to the keenest longings -- to shame. We were bound by conventions we broke only with risk; it meant trouble of many different shades.

In our cruddy Instamatic photos, stuffed back into the developers’ envelopes to be lost on future moving days or rescued one day from shoeboxes and basements, we are often piled laughing on a chesterfield, those syrupy tones everywhere. Tweedy caramel upholstery, mellow fruit-patterned wallpaper. And we didn’t have poses yet, just grins.

It is shocking how much we forget and entirely capricious, I think, what we remember -- always spliced into a twinge, a wince, a poignant sense of memory's alchemy, into a flash of belated understanding. 

Martin Amis recalled in his memoir Experience the “armpit scorching” that memories of adolescence visits upon us (and oh, the high-tidal blushes!); the late Eric Wright wrote about the stunning fact of encountering again the only people who share those memories. At the end of his very affecting memoir of growing up in a large, poor English family between the world wars, Always Give a Penny to a Blind Man, Wright described a reunion with his schoolmates. There they were, he said, all wearing masks, as he was fleetingly convinced, masks of the faces of old men.