Cleaning up, I found an old picture. A snapshot in time, unposed and unfiltered, framed in white edging now a little tattered and torn. In it, I’m about 3 or 4 years old, I think, which means the photo was taken about 45 years ago. Almost half a century. That’s a conception of time that makes my heart leap into my throat.
We are on a South African beach with blue sky above and waves frothing white in the distance. My mother, who is decades younger than I now currently am, holds my sister in her lap. And my grandfather on my father’s side, who is probably only a handful of years older than current-me, squats down beside the sandcastle I’m engrossed in building. The colours are fading a little, as photos, and memories, are wont to do.
They are a funny thing, photos, which plonk us right in the middle of events we might not recall. Evidence of an experience we have no recollection of having. I’m too young to remember this particular day, which took place before I had the language structure or sense of self that episodic memory relies on.
But I have fragments of beach memories for which we don’t have photos.
I remember getting dumped by waves off Addington beach with this same grandfather – my Pops. A tumultuous tumbling, a moment of panic and a mouthful of sand. I remember walking along the beach with my other grandfather – Grandad, as tall as the sky, face bright with a smile – the wet sand sucking away our footprints. In my memory breakfast barbeques with extended family amongst the rocks at Umdloti still live. Rockpiles that we turned into imaginary multi-story mansions: this layer a bedroom, that configuration the lounge room. Chandeliers in my imagination. When I went back to that beach as an adult I was surprised at just how small those rock formations actually were. My dad taught 6-year-old me how to swim at this beach.
Later, maybe aged 12 or so, I recall one-day getting swept out to sea on my red blow-up boogie board, being rescued by strangers, and walking back drenched in adrenaline to my parents who were cooking eggs and bacon on the skottle-braai under the Mulberry trees at Scottburgh beach. I recall blue bottle stings and the smell of the sea, watching surf competitions and walking along the piers with my friends, our feet bright red with sunburn.
No wonder I love the sea. It is associated in my mind with memories of family and love, freedom and space. My favourite beach in all the world is off the coast of Perth, where it feels like the sea of my Durban-based childhood washes up the soft white sand to run over my freckled feet.
We photograph everything now. Multiple times for later review. My hard-drive creaks with about 200gb of photos I don’t even know how to begin sorting. We pose and show off our experiences to our friends. #bestlife.
But photos only catch the external view. A frozen moment in time. They seldom convey what you thought or felt at the time. And the frightening thing is, given how much we photograph everything, science shows that when we photograph things we are less likely to remember those moments. And because memories themselves are pliable recreations, not faithful reproductions, those photos shape what memories we do have – solidifying them in a lifeless snapshot, the emotions and experiences of the moment lost to the changing synapsis of our brains, if encoded at all.
I love this particular photo anyway. It is a reminder about the endless cycle of life. Pops grew old and grisly around the face. But my dad’s smile always seemed to shine out of it. The last time I saw him he was chain-smoking cigarettes in a Joburg flat, sitting in a supportive armchair, telling me some long tale or other that probably involved Arsenal. I was older then. As old as my mum is on the beach here. Independent, educated, driving my car, and partying quite hard as people who live in one of the most lawless cities in the world feel compelled to do.
And there is my mum, eyes closed against the glare, sharing the same journey I’ve been on – juggling kids and life and in-laws; and probably a whole heap of barely concealed frustration that comes with negotiating an identity for yourself within the roles of wife and mother.
Time might stand still in the photograph. We can capture it and put it in a frame, like a butterfly under a pin. But in life we ever move. Whatever we feel now will pass, whatever destination we think we’ve arrived at too. There is only the journey – the ever-changing here and now. We add our footsteps to those that went before, but we choose whether to trudge or to dance along the way, to walk lightly or to get mired in whatever moment we find ourselves in.
I’m mired right now. Mentally in the brambles watching on in horror as anti-vaxxers, anti-abortionists, anti-democracy activists seek to disrupt the benefits of civilisation and progress with their self-indulgent ideologies. That’s another brain bias, I know. Our attraction to the negative. Fighting my way out of the brambles is hard going at the moment. It’s an effort that leaves me breathless some days.
But this photo is a reminder to me to disconnect from technology and breathe in life’s momentous possibilities. To walk on the beach and feel the sun on my skin, to watch the sun rise and set, and hug my kids who grow larger and more independent with every passing day. To laugh with my friends, and ride my bike, and lean into the warm embrace of my beloved husband who walks beside me into old age.
And so, onwards we go.
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