Heartbeats and Hues

My mother’s photo library is a tapestry of the life she’s lived, though she is rarely present in the images. She is the one most often behind the lens, choosing to capture the beauty in everything she sees rather than be captured herself.
Our hikes are paused intermittently to point her phone at a mushroom, at the play of light on the leaves, at her children’s hands stretched out atop a bed of flowers, at a salamander moving languidly along her husband’s palm. We tangle ourselves among the branches of overgrown, ancient trees, our faces peeking out through hanging tendrils of moss and our feet tucked precariously into knots in the bark, as she darts around the base and tries to catch every angle. We stand atop mountains dusted with snow, with our backs to ocean waves streaked by fading light, braced against the pull of rivers’ currents. She captures nature and people with the eye of an artist whose paintings reflect bits and pieces of what her camera has collected.
My father holds my hand in his and traces my finger along the outline of a car he has photographed. This one sits in a junkyard surrounded by what once were other cars and maybe one day may be so again. This one is so overgrown by trees and vines that they have claimed it as their own, its shattered windows little more than extra space to continue to grow. This one was a heap of rubble and now gleams as though brand new, and he uses my hand like a paintbrush to show me the shape of its roof, its tail lights, its hubcaps. There is such glee and pride in his voice as he tells me the stories of what he and his camera have constructed.
With the exquisite detail and intention of the poet he is, he transforms the world into something I can comprehend. He takes my hands in his and traces the shape of the sky in sweeping gestures, adjectives falling from his lips like the light I can feel against my skin. He guides me, step by step, off the beaten paths just to let me touch the leaves, the mushrooms, the flowers he has discovered. I am not a piece of these photos like I am of so many of my mother’s, but I am still a part of them in the moments of discovery and retelling.
I once walked to class with a boy who spent our fifteen-minute trip starting, stopping, stuttering out sentences as he tried to find the perfect way to describe to me just how the sky looked that day. He traced incomprehensible shapes into my palms and cycled through four or five shades of the blue visible behind the clouds, before finally giving up and tapping the sapphire on the necklace I wore. “It looks how this feels,” he said. The stone feels no different to me than many others I have, but it is now the texture with which I associate how that day felt.
I wonder what kind of photographer I would be, were it an art in which I could more easily participate. I wonder what would capture my eye, to what sort of scenery I would be drawn. I wonder how I would describe the sunset to someone else. I am envious, sometimes, of these vast collections of images that people have constructed. My memory, which feels so often faulty and unreliable and which is so easily manipulated and altered, seems a poor substitute for the ability to scroll endlessly through one’s history.
I gravitate toward the details of a moment. I try to catalog the emotions, sensations, and tones of an interaction. I trace the shape of leaves to remember that instant of touching them. I memorize heartbeats and gestures, the feel of fingers between mine, the silences between words. I tell myself to remember, to remember, to please remember. I spend so much of my life afraid of the future, worried about the past, and desperate to cling to the present. It is a strange trichotomy that often leaves me concerned about my ability to simply exist in the moment.
Instead of photos, I collect objects. I try to take away some piece of the important moments which are later stored in a hodgepodge collection sensical to nobody but me. It is not the same. They are but a tiny piece of a heartbeat in time, relying entirely on my own mind to recall and fill in the details. Still, it is helpful to one as forgetful as I to have a tangible object to remind me of a history of which I sometimes lose track. After all, I may forget many things, but the ones which linger do so with an intensity that can be overwhelming.
It started with a golf ball. The older brother and sole caregiver to a friend picked it up from the thick, well-maintained grass that coated what passed for a backyard that all our apartments shared. He was leading my sister, our friend, and me to the mall for an afternoon of mischief and, on his part, resigned frustration. He asked if any of us wanted it, this random relic left behind among the greenery. I took it. I do not know why. I do not know what thoughts went through my ten-year-old mind when I made the choice, but I am sure grateful now to whatever they were.
To anyone else, it would be meaningless. To me, it conjures the memory of my friend and her brother, of hot pavement under our bare feet as we ran for the pool, of an impressive stuffed animal collection strewn across a tiny bedroom’s floor, of late nights trying to suppress giggling so as not to alert my mom we were still awake. It reminds me of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, paid for by my friend’s brother who could not really afford to buy these three kids such a treat but did anyway.
Not all the items carry quite such an expansive swath of memory with them. The pottery slice of cake covered in renditions of various cats serves mostly as a reminder that I was in the fifth grade when I read the Warrior Cat’s books. I forget, sometimes, that I have been a reader longer than I realize. The homemade wands serve primarily as evidence of a 9th grade Honors English class, in which my group decided our final project would be a Harry Potter parody of Much Ado About Nothing. Still, though they were unrelated to other events, they nonetheless evoke recollections of that teacher asking me to send her something I had written, of the moment she read it to the class and there came the audible gasp from every throat when she announced me as the author at the end. That was the moment I realized I wanted to be a writer.
There are letters written in braille to me by one of my big brother’s high school girlfriends, who wanted so much to connect with his little sisters. There are the paper snowflakes I learned to make as a child and which I tried, unsuccessfully, to sell to my family members for a dollar. They all have meaning, but some more than others. They were important in the moment of me deciding to save them, and though sometimes the meaning has faded with time and growth, I hold them for the sake of the girl who once thought them a treasure.
Some bring a heavier weight with them. There are the tiny dogs and cats, once part of children’s playsets, which remind me of one of the last times my little sister asked to play with me. I told her I was too busy with an online game I had discovered. There is the paper heart a friend cut out and gave to me the day I overheard her talking about her drug use problems and subsequent hospital stays. There are dice which serve as a reminder of a man who taught me to love to read but who also left my family with some wounds still healing. There is the bracelet made for me on my 11th birthday by a girl whose name is all I remember, and yet I hold on in the hope that one day more memories will surface.
And then there are the boarding passes. Some mine, most others, a stack of neatly aligned papers nearly an inch thick. They are such a strange thing for me to collect, and yet they are here. They are evidence. They are proof that these people, so often far from me, are real. They are proof they exist. They are proof that, at one point in time, we shared the same space, breathed the same air. I hugged them. I held their hands. They are real.
I spend so much of my life in a state of disconnection, where everything feels like it is the tiniest bit too far away to reach. The shadow of it is there, and I wrap myself in it as though I am hiding from the light of reality. I soak up moments of tangibility, when I feel as though I have been called back to earth and held there for a moment. I breathe in the feeling of being held by my mother, being teasingly hit by my sister, being chosen as a sleeping space by my cats.
But these papers. These passes. They tie me to a life and to people with whom I am at my most comfortable. They tether me to the hearts and minds and hands of those who give me the grace to be the anxious, awkward, strange girl I am. They serve as the reminder that those moments were not a dream. They linger as evidence that these people are real, that those moments were real, that I am real, and I have space in this world.
If I were a photographer, I suppose it would be these moments which I would aim to capture: these moments of connection; of recognition; of acceptance. I would chronicle the breathless laughter of an unexpected joke, the tangle of hands twined together among friends, the giddy joy of hugging someone not seen in months. I would capture the tranquility, the exhilaration, the silliness of being loved in a world where such a thing is hard to come by.
Until then, I will hold onto these trinkets. Until then, I will keep collecting boarding passes.

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