Martha sat with the photo album in her lap, a thin layer of dust drifting from the faded leather. She flipped it open to the first page. Behind yellow plastic she caught a picture of three children—the oldest 7—staring dutifully into the camera, solemn looks on their faces.
She lightly touched the face of the middle child, a girl with braids and dark eyes, before glancing at the photo to the right. In this picture, the solemnity of the moment was gone, the formality of the scene broken as the camera caught the older boy tugging his sister’s braid, her head jerked slightly to the side. The three-year-old had slid off the chair and turned his back on the scene.
Slowly she flipped through the pages, pausing here, lingering there, absorbing images of children at birthday parties, swimming in the lagoon, saying prayers at their bedside. Mostly the pictures reflected a happy time. After closing the last page, she set the book carefully on a settee, then turned to a pile of similar, dusty-leather-bound books and picked up the next one.
For hours she sat there, going through page after page, book after book, until the last one was closed on her lap. The children in this volume were older, 27, 29 and 31. In this one, joy was the exception.
Even when a smile was present, it felt fleeting, ephemeral, glimpsed; captured on the edge of the lips, like a bird pausing on an overhead branch, before flitting off. In those photos—where many frozen faces peered out—the smiles were few.
Her children—the two still living—were now 49 and 51. There were no more printed copies of photos; no more books had been filled. Those last photo albums, the ones that captured her children on the cusp of their 30’s, contained the final hard prints, extracted out of an industry that was herding everyone into digital.
Martha had moved reluctantly into the new world. Her first digital camera had been a gift from her oldest son, after he had started working. His hobby was photography, something he was convinced he was good at.
He thought his mother’s old, film camera was clunky and took crappy photos; actually, he thought she took crappy photos, but, no matter; he wanted to buy her a digital camera. He picked one out he liked and gave it to her for Mother’s Day.
She was grateful it included the sound of a lens snapping shut, a feature her son had said was silly, but which she had insisted upon. The sound comforted her; lulled her into feeling that things weren’t changing.
She religiously requested her photos as prints, even when the clerk at the photo shop encouraged her to get her pictures on disk.
“You can watch them on your computer,” the clerk said. “Run a slide show of pictures all day long. You’ll love it!”
Martha ignored the clerk. She continued to get prints. She continued to put them into her albums. She liked feeling the weight of her albums in her lap. She liked flipping through the books, taking her time with some photos, skipping past others. She liked controlling the pace.
But technology nudged more change on her. Getting prints started to cost more than getting them on disk. Her photo shop went out of business. Her children pressed her to change, seeing her bookshelves overflowing with photo albums, used, yet dusty, taking up space.
Over time, she gave in. Pictures of her adult children were all digital, first stored on disks, then—pushed by her son—moved to the cloud. Into an account he set up; that he managed.
“They’ll be safe forever,” he had assured her as he set up the account. “You’ll never have to worry about them being destroyed by a fire.”
Then he was dead. And she never again saw the cloud photos.