The Family Photos

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The other day, a friend showed me his family's photo album. We laughed at baby pictures, cracked up at '70s clothing and hair, fast-forwarding through graduations, birthdays and pajama-clad kids on Christmas morning.
And, turning the pages, it dawned on me: his family photo album looks just like my family photo album.

Same photos, different people. Almost identical shots of kids blowing out candles, school plays, '50s cheesecake photos of Mom at the beach, faded pictures of random relatives.

It makes no difference this friend grew up in France and I grew up here: family pictures are the same everywhere. My friend May's family photos look like my own, though her family lived in China; babies with beaming grandparents, first days of school. And my friend Sam may be from the mean streets of Detroit, but his album is an African-American version of mine; kids in Halloween costumes, young adults in tuxedos on prom.

Looking through friends' photos, I found myself deeply touched by the simple similarity of family photo albums: how all families celebrate and mourn, how alike we all are. I thought of that invariable quote after some disaster. "Escaped with our lives, everything was lost, but the only item that mattered were the family photos."
This holiday season, taking pictures beside the tree, I've been thinking about those photo albums. But I realized the most important pictures in family albums are not holidays or graduations. It's those snapshots of the messiness of everyday life as we're living it, our day-to-day lives that will be over too soon: the kids will grow up, we will say goodbye forever to grandparents.

A family photo album is a small thing, but this Christmas, I see the bigger picture. These plastic pages hold so many stories; the blessings and burdens, joys and sorrows, of the ordinary, extraordinary days that make a family.
With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.


Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.