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11 November 2023updated 13 Nov 2023 2:45pm

A box of family photos pulls me into the past

Looking at pictures with my siblings, time seems to collapse in on itself.

By Tracey Thorn

I’m looking at a photo I’ve never seen before, and I think I’m sort of in it. Taken in the summer of 1962, it shows Mum, Dad and my older brother and sister all sitting in our garden. I get a funny feeling as I realise that Mum must be pregnant with me, and the hair on my arms starts to prickle as if I’ve seen a ghost. My parents are both dead now, and in this photo I’m about to be born; I feel like I’m looking at a frozen image of my own future, which has now itself become the past. My mind is slightly blown.

My brother and sister, Keith and Debbie, are looking through a box of old slides with me, which Keith brought back from our relatives in Canada. Our uncle emigrated in the late 1950s and there is a huge clan of descendants, none of whom I’ve ever met. When Keith visited recently he was given these slides, which have turned out to be unimagined treasure. Peering through the viewfinder, we are shrieking with delight and amazement to see ourselves from so long ago.

Here are our young, slim parents in front of the Christmas tree, a twinkly angel perched on the top. Mum in a sage green knitted cardigan, Dad in a jersey, both probably knitted by my grandmother, who sits wearing her gentle smile. Each parent has a cigarette between their fingers, and Mum holds a drink that looks like an Aperol Spritz, but must be a gin and orange.

After a few more pictures, which document the arrival of my brother and sister on the scene, we then come to this one of my pregnant mum. Her shape is disguised by being seated in a deckchair, but she’s wearing a looser dress than usual, and there’s a softness to her face we’ve never seen before. Another one taken on the same afternoon includes my grandmother and great-grandmother, the latter seated in a heavy armchair that’s been carried out from the house.

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They all look happily expectant, not knowing that my arrival will soon shatter everyone’s peace. I will nearly die at birth, and will be rushed to hospital for a spell in an incubator. Even when I come home I’ll need more care than an average newborn, so my poor siblings don’t know it but they are about to lose a lot of Mum’s time and attention. I feel like we’re looking at a “before” moment. The calm before the storm. I almost want to apologise to everyone for what’s about to happen.

In the next photo, two years have passed. It’s Christmas again, and everyone is around the table with paper hats, wine and Christmas pudding. My sister and I are in matching party dresses, and while Debbie is wearing a festive smile, I have on my regular childhood face, which is almost comically miserable. My hat has slid down over my ears, my lower lip trembles, my eyebrows knot together in anxious woe. I stare at the camera with such despair you would think all the troubles of the world rested upon my tiny shoulders.

And how do my siblings now respond to this heart-rending picture? They laugh, of course. As do I. Because this face of my mine is familiar to all of us. When out with my mum, strangers would gaze down at me sympathetically before asking, “Oh dear, what’s wrong with her?” – to which Mum would reply with exasperation, “Nothing, that’s how she always looks.”

I can speculate now as to whether my difficult early start had left me traumatised and fearful, but it’s also possible that I was just a child who took everything very seriously; a sensitive soul who found Christmas family gatherings simply too much. Luckily in the next picture I am beaming at the camera, so we reassure ourselves that I had other moods too.

We’re coming to the end of the box of slides now and it’s taken hours, each photo leading us down a path of reminiscence and storytelling. It has been a joy seeing our parents so young and, apparently, carefree. Look at all the ciggies and the homemade clothes! The pink lampshades and the wallpaper! That car! Those cardigans!

We’ve been drawn deeper and deeper back into the past, until time has seemed to collapse in on itself, and I find myself thinking of TS Eliot, and the opening lines of “Burnt Norton”:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

But I don’t say that out loud because I suspect that – with great affection, and in the way that only siblings are allowed – they would laugh at me. And fair enough.

[See also: The lies we tell about Joan Didion]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures