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Janis Jaquith
janis@radioessays.com
524 words

A VIRTUAL UNDERTAKING

This is a huge undertaking, and I am obsessed with it. I've gathered a few hundred photos and I'm putting them all on a DVD, creating a display for my family - a reason to gather, tell stories, and remember.

I'm scanning these family photographs, feeding them into my computer, and one by one, they appear, like magic, on my screen - afterimages of youth and life.

Hunched over my iMac for hours, I forget to eat, forget to sleep. The room around me fades away and I am drawn into the luminous image on my screen. I don't want to stop. I tell myself: Just one more picture.

And then, with the click of a mouse, I conjure the dead.

These pictures are familiar, I've seen them in albums and shoeboxes over the years, but the paper photos are different. They are small, the people dwarfed by sky and trees and sand, by furniture and wallpaper. Those Brownie cameras and Instamatics were not close-up friendly.

Look at this paper snapshot of my parents as newlyweds - it's faded and yellowed, there are tiny white spots all over it. It's mostly houses, beach, and strangers on blankets. My parents are the ones looking at the camera. But now I'll scan it, feed it into my computer, and watch what happens.

One click, and the extraneous background and the strangers fall away, and we're left with the entwined young couple, who now fill the screen.

Using every software tool I can think of, I enhance this photograph. What time has faded and yellowed, I resurrect with color correction and sharpened contrast. I erase the spots on their skin, in their hair, fill in scratches and creases.

And then, the magic happens. I sit back and marvel at the restoration of my father - a young man brought back to life - and of my mother's astonishing, improbable youth. Scenes from the past so real, I inhabit them.

Now, I see the expressions on their faces. My mother encircles Dad's neck and shoulder with her arms. Her head rests against his; she smiles hugely at the camera. Everything about her says, "This guy is MINE." Dad tilts his face toward Mum's but his eyes are on the camera, and there's a wicked twinkle in them.

Before, I knew from the writing on the back that this was a picture taken in 1941, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Now, I know that this is a picture of what being in love looks like.

Fussing with these images feels like a kind of grooming, the way I once looked after my dolls, brushing their hair. Then later, with my kids, using Kleenex and spit to forefinger a smudge from a cheek.

Now, I'm grooming, nitpicking, fussing with images, preserving the past the way a mortician cares for the dead - displaying for family what has been lost, and providing a reason to gather, tell stories, and remember.


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