Michael Perry: The power of the old family snapshot
As common as deer snorts are around these parts I didn’t find the sharp exhalations out of the ordinary at first, but when they continued one after the other I left the writing desk to peek out the window and see what all the fuss was for. It was midafternoon and sunny and the cat was hurrying up the driveway. Not running, but hurrying and looking back over its shoulder. Odd behavior for a cat. And then, busting out of the brush, a buck deer, trotting behind and shaking its velvety antlers at the fleeing feline. As they chased past the window I grabbed my phone, hoping for some sort of viral social media renown, but by the time I got to video mode the cat was in deep cover beneath the kitchen window hedge and the buck — with a final stamp and snort — was off into the woods behind the pole barn, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
As any cave drawing will establish, the compulsive need to document everything and share it with the world is by no means a recent phenomenon, but technology has certainly kicked it into overdrive. I’ve dabbled myself, sometimes justifying it as a way to help me make a living, other times just because I want to publicly declare, “Hey. Look at this weird mushroom.”
This past Sunday morning we gathered at my mother-in-law’s house for family portraits. All things considered, I prefer dentist appointments, but know when it is my job to show up, shut up, and smile. It was the usual multigenerational rodeo. Lots of contradictory commands, exhortations, and inevitable tears, but our faces have been recorded for history and some of us will appear happy to be there.
Later that afternoon the extended family gathered in the basement to watch a digital slide show of past gatherings. First we had to pause a children’s movie in progress. There were protestations, but the second the first slide flashed on the big flat screen the happiest cries came from the youngest among us. Photo by photo, memory by memory, we adults murmured and chuckled and nudged each other, but the toddler set was positively giddy, pointing with delight at photos of themselves on a pontoon boat, or around a campfire, or whacking a piñata, or just eating potato salad.
“I looked so different then!” exclaimed my 5-year-old nephew when he saw a photo of himself as a 4-year-old, and in that moment it occurred to me that the power of the viral video in the blow-up moment pales in comparison to the power of the standard family snapshot in retrospect. The wonder in that child’s voice was real, and the shelf-life of that snapshot will invest it with greater power the older it gets. Once you’ve seen a deer chasing a cat it will never surprise you again, whereas the joy of seeing yourself happy among family will only refresh itself in rediscovery. I still wish I had captured the deer harassing the cat. The kids would have loved it. But they have a thousand other pictures. A thousand other joys, for which they will one day murmur.