“Mom? Where is our family photo album?”
Children ask the most difficult questions, Donna thought to herself. She went to the kitchen to greet her son, where he always headed after coming home from school.
“We don’t have one as such,” she replied hesitantly. “Did you want to see something in particular?”
Tommy poured himself a glass of milk and reached for the cookie jar. “It’s for a school project. We’re supposed to bring in a picture of ourself when we were little.”
His mother handed him a plate and a paper napkin, hoping he would agree to use at least one of the two. “I keep some photos in a box in the hall closet. We can dig through there together. I’m sure we can find something you can use.” She knew exactly how few pictures she had of him as a child, but she could stretch the search into a few extra minutes with her son.
After cleaning up the cookie crumbs and drops of milk that missed both the plate and the napkin, they opened the linen closet and pulled out a cardboard box. It was overflowing with many small envelopes, each stuffed full of loose photographs.
“Some of these go back to when I was a child myself,” she told him. She peeked inside an envelope to check its contents, then set it aside. “Yours should be near the top here, somewhere.” She let him check another envelope.
“These are pictures of our old house,” said Tommy, “but I don’t see any of us in them.” He closely inspected several of the photos, then scanned through the rest of the stack. “I don’t see any people in them at all. Is this all we have?”
Donna pretended to be surprised by the contents in the next envelope, assuming it would end their expedition. “Oh, here you go. Look what I found. All of your school portraits.” She handed him the packet, hoping it would end his questions.
Tommy looked for something suitable for his class project. “These are all taken by a photographer, and I’m all dressed up in them. They don’t show who I really am, or who I was when I was a little kid. The teacher said we should bring in something… I forget the word, but less staged and more personal.”
“Casual? Candid?” suggested his mother. “I think we could get copies of some shots taken at your friend’s birthday party last year. Would you like me to ask his parents for those?”
He looked at the rest of the box, with many more envelopes yet to be opened. “Can I keep looking through these with you?”
She nodded, but without enthusiasm. “I don’t think you’ll find much else in there. We really didn’t take very many pictures over the years.”
Tommy flipped past scenes of neighborhoods and mountains, buildings and parks. One picture showed a table in a restaurant set for a fancy feast, but no one was seated at the place settings. “Where are all the people?” he asked.
“Oh, they hadn’t yet arrived,” she lied to him. “I took that one before the dinner we had when I graduated from college. People started arriving and I put down the camera and forgot all about taking a picture of the group.”
“But they’re all like this!” He started to spread the photos out on the floor, there in the hall in front of the linen closet. “Here’s one of the playground across from our old house, but there’s no kids in it. Why would you take a picture of an empty playground?”
I didn’t, Donna thought to herself. I remember you hanging from the monkey bars in that one, and I remember all my friends being around that dinner table when I snapped that photo. The people always disappear when I have the film developed.
“I guess I just don’t have good luck with cameras,” she told him.
(updated: I altered a few lines for clarity — I hope it’s an improvement. Feedback is always welcome, thank you.)