Before Everything Changed

(Adapted from a post originally published on my former blog, Five Dollars and Some Common Sense, in April 2009)

A few years ago, my parents went through hundreds of old photos, throwing some out, giving some to each child, and saving some to be transferred to CD. My mom gave me a copy of this photo from April 1972, showing our family at the Statue of Liberty. I found this photo fascinating for several reasons.

First, the twin towers in the background are not only there, but are also in the final throes of construction. That black band at the top of the south tower? That’s several unfinished floors, and if you look closely, you can see a crane up there. Before 9/11, I could not have told you how old the towers were. I certainly have no memory of seeing them mid-construction in 1972. But a photo like this makes me aware that history is something I am living through. It’s not just metal markers by the side of the road, or my late grandmother’s remark that she went from living “in a house with a path [to the outhouse, that is] to a house with three bathrooms.” At not quite four years old, I saw the towers being built. At 33, I turned on the television just in time to hear Katie Couric say the second tower had just fallen, and sat there transfixed, clamping a hand over my mouth to keep from sobbing so I wouldn’t frighten my 21-month-old daughter.

Now notice how we are dressed. In looking through years’ worth of photos, my mom kept commenting on how nicely she dressed us. Always dresses and tights for me and my sister, turtlenecks and sweaters for my brother, buttoned wool coats for any holiday or special outing, like this one. My parents did not have a lot of money; many of these clothes were either hand-me-downs or sewn by my mom. But look at us—and at my mom! I would not wear a wool suit with nylons and heels to church, or even out to dinner. Maybe to a funeral? But my mom dressed like that to take her three young children on a day trip to New York City! I do not envy her, but I sort of admire her, and wonder if, by not dressing for special occasions in the same way we used to, we’re missing out on something that makes the world a little more beautiful.

But this is what really floors me—my mom’s purse. You can’t see all of it, but she said it was a black purse with a little handle. The kind of purse you hold in your hand, as she is here. You don’t sling it over your shoulder. You don’t strap it on your back. You carry it.

I do not understand. How can a mother with three children, ages 3, 5 and 7, tote something around in her hand all day? Doesn’t she need her hands free, to carry all their stuff? And, come to think of it, where is all the stuff? Surely there is some tote bag that just didn’t make it into the photo. What about the snacks and drinks? The little toys to keep tired children distracted? The extra clothes in case someone has an accident?

No, my mom said. There was no bag. Just the purse. They didn’t bring all that stuff with them the way we do.

Huh.

But I just thought that’s how we’re supposed to do things. The ziploc bags of goldfish crackers, the water bottles, the purses stuffed with crayons, Happy Meal toys and hand sanitizer are fixtures in the lives of modern parents, the way the twin towers were a fixture in Lower Manhattan. All that stuff serves as a landmark to let you know that, yup, this is where you are, in the land of young children. Enjoy it while you’re here, because just as most of the world does not have 110-story office buildings, most of your life will be lived without these small beings, and all their junk, as your constant companions.

And just like the towers, some day these little ones will be gone.

I dwell a lot on how fleeting my life with young children is. I know full well how quickly it will pass (is already passing), and mourn that passing often. Actually, every day. No longer having to carry so much stuff, however, is one passage I anticipated for some time. Whenever someone admires the mini Vera Bradley bag I use as a purse these days, I point out that it’s the perfect size for some cash, a few credit cards, my calendar, and my phone. Nothing more. When my kids were younger, I had bags big enough to carry an extra diaper, some wipes, crayons, even a fold-up toilet seat for use with public toilets during potty training (Leah was so tiny at 3 years old that I was seriously afraid she would fall right into one of those things). Now, with my little mini hipster, I feel so unencumbered, so free!

But looking at this 1972 photo makes me wonder if the too-much-stuff-to-carry cross is one that I chose to bear, not one that just comes with the territory. Perhaps, if the kids chose to pick at their breakfast rather than actually eating it, I didn’t need to bring crackers along on our morning errands in case they get hungry (which of course they did). Maybe they could just be hungry until we get home. Maybe, if they got whiny and cranky during those errands, I could have chosen to either let them whine, or skip the final errand to come home earlier than I planned.

Maybe even now I’m working too hard to make them happy, to anticipate every need and make sure I have just the thing to meet it, thinking it will make my life easier, when really, it has just made me and them a slave to the stuff we feel we must have with us at all times to be okay.

I can’t know what my mom was thinking as my dad took this photo in New York City in 1972. Maybe she was tired and ready to head home, maybe my siblings and I had been crabby or hungry or whiny at some point. My mom doesn’t remember details of the day. But from this photo, we all look pretty happy. We seem to be okay, happy to be out on a spring day, seeing an American landmark together, without much stuff at all.

I can’t stop looking at this photo, because of all the ways it reveals a world that no longer exists.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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