The Photos That Cheer Us Up

hello there, friend

On my refrigerator is a photograph I took of my daughter Lily right before she turned two. A few months ago, while my husband Adam was cleaning out the basement, he found it and handed it to me, a big smile on his face.

“Do you remember this?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do,” I said, taking the photo in my hand. “I took this at that restaurant on the Causeway. We were sitting outside, but they made us move in because it was too windy and the umbrellas were almost bending in half.” I looked closer at my daughter’s toothy little smile. “But we left and ended up going somewhere else. I can’t remember where.”

“I don’t remember that,” he said. He stood at the sink washing his hands, and I placed the photo on the fridge under a magnet.

“We were only there for, like, five minutes,” I went on, examining the photo again. “And look at this light. Look at the sun in her curls.” I sighed.

The photograph is a portrait of my daughter. She’s smiling with her big blue eyes and chubby cheeks, perfectly content and used to having the camera in her face often. Behind her, the sun is glowing, the light glinting off the wispy curls of baby hair she’d have snipped away a year or so later.

What I remember about that day is we had driven across the bay to the beach and walked along the sand. We were just looking for something to do, and I had off-handedly suggested a little adventure. I had packed two cameras – one digital and one film – because I could never make up my mind beforehand about which one I’d want.

I’d often take a photo with my digital camera, then try it again on film just to feel the difference. The digital camera was bulky and heavy, but film felt light. The lens I had was manual, so I took care to focus precisely, twisting the ring left and then right. I realized I liked the way it slowed me down, like an old friend tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me to pay attention.

I looked more closely at the photo on the fridge. “It’s like I had it in me all along,” I said.

“What’s that?” Adam asked.

“A knack for this stuff,” I said. “That was such a hard time, but this – this was here all along.”

My urge to take pictures came from a place of observation. I wanted so badly to love my life. I’d keep my camera nearby in the house, I carried it with me when I went out. I was constantly hunting for something beautiful, even in the most ordinary of places. I took photos of whatever interested me – sometimes my little daughter, sometimes something else.

What I knew was that the process of taking a photo made me feel something, and at that time in my life, I needed to feel something good. I didn’t care about perfect light or composition; I cared about moments and what I could see.

One afternoon, while I was still very pregnant with my son, Lily climbed up on the bed with me after her nap, her blond curls longer by then, spilling over her shoulders. I had spent all of nap time lying down, trying to rest but instead sorting through my feelings about bringing another person into our family.

I asked her how she felt about the new baby coming, but she was three years old and ambivalent to anything not directly in front of her. I grabbed the computer from the other room, and flipped it open on the bed. “Let’s look at photos of you when you were a baby,” I said.

A friend of mine had suggested that, on particularly bad days, I look through old photographs to cheer myself up. She insisted it works even if the photos aren’t very good. They bring back all those good feelings, she said, because you rarely take a photo of something you don’t want to remember.

I sat with my daughter, browsing through picture after picture. There were more than I remembered, but each one called me back to the moment I pressed the shutter: the time we went to the park and laid on the blanket I made, my husband holding our baby while he studied for his paramedic exam at the dining room table, going to the pumpkin patch or the beach for the first time. It all came flooding back, crashing over me and washing away the overwhelm.

Everything was going to be okay.

It’s a late afternoon in October, and I take my kids to a park by the lake. The sun will be going down within the hour, the golden hour when the sun is soft and low as it nears the horizon. I have no clue what to expect – we’ve never been to this park before and, though I’ve shot my camera at golden hour hundreds of times before, I want to try something new.

The edge of the park, near the water, is filled with smooth, flat rocks. Both kids stand there, throwing rock after rock, giggling as they kerplop into the water. I snap photo after photo, the light behind them, to the left of the frame. Lily’s hair blows back from her face and lights up, gold in the sun.

“Mom,” she calls, waving me over. “Come here!”

I walk toward her and she puts out her hands. “Look, it’s a heart,” she says, and she shows me a pink and gray rock with a dimple at the top. “Take a picture,” she insists.

I take more photos. I put my kids in the pretty light and sit back and watch. For a moment, I think of that photo on the fridge. I can still see that little girl in the big girl my daughter is becoming – the blue eyes the same, the golden hair, the smile. She is taller now, and slender, but that little girl is still inside her, standing in the same light. And I’m still here with my camera, taking photos that will someday cheer us up.


Words and photograph by Lindsay Crandall.