I cannot tell you the exact date this story happened. My sister and I were young. Our family had no digital cameras or cell phones, they didn’t exist. If they had been invented, rich people were buying them along with their thousand dollar VCRs. Yes, once upon time a VCR cost over a grand and Betamax sat on store shelves. Microwaves were all the rage and mom found a way to cook everything in the large contraption with a dial. Scrambled eggs, bacon, and even meatloaf could be microwaved and ready to serve. I don’t recommend the meatloaf. Sorry, mom.
Our vacations during these nostalgic years were spent at Myrtle Beach. Walking along dark tanned sandy beaches, staying in cottages, and discovering South Carolina’s humidity. I fell in love with the Atlantic Ocean here. That ocean and I have an undying, devoted, passionate love affair even today.
These were the times when a vacation didn’t cost a third of a working family’s salary. One week a year my family would leave our mountain home to seek out sunburns and saltwater. One or two evenings, we visited the Pavilion on the boardwalk. There are few memories which hasn’t been wiped clean my from childhood. The smell of a sea breeze mixed with an amusement park is one of them. I can still see Baden Band Organ and recall how I thought magic existed inside of it as the music serenaded a summer evening. I don’t know where the pictures we took of that organ are. I remember snapping off several, I wanted to remember its beauty and the cherubs attached to it.
My mother loved photographs enough to take actual film to a store and wait a few days for it to be developed. Perhaps her choice wasn’t love but necessity, because this is how pictures were made. She’d always return to the store and shell out a few more dollars. In exchange for her money, she received a tightly sealed important package. In her hand she held onto our collection of recent memories made.
Pictures are memories, and they can either be held or lost. Each passing morning a piece to my childhood becomes a bit more difficult to recall. I still remember laughing, hardy happy gut-busting chuckles at a certain picture she picked up.
One of our valued treasures from a vacation existed in one single photograph taken at a Myrtle Beach waterpark. This picture has been tucked away somewhere, forgotten, or perhaps finally thrown away. Before digital photography, you couldn’t see what the camera in your hand had captured. Even polaroids weren’t instant gratification. A person still had to wait as a picture rolled off the bulky handheld contraption and then you waved the ever-loving daylights out of the thing trying to make it develop faster.
The picture we loved the most wasn’t a polaroid. It came back to us combined with negatives with our surname handwritten on the outside of the envelope. Getting pictures in these times were a special event. You held in your hands the memories of a good time. We would reminisce about being there and say things like: “Do you remember?” Two vacations were had. One real one and one in a pack of photographs documenting the things we thought were special enough to waste one of our clicks on. Clicks were numbered back then… some things haven’t changed, we’re still counting clicks, huh?
One of the clicks my mother believed to be special was my father coming down a bolted together tubular slide. His arms and legs were crossed as he sped like an ignited bullet. We stared at her picture. We studied it. Then the revelation happened. The man in the picture wasn’t my dad. His swimming trunks were maroon, my father wore blue swim trunks. And we laughed.
We cackled and ribbed mom for taking a picture of a strange pot-bellied man. Physically, he resembled my father. But those trunks, they were the identifying marker we had a picture of a stranger. In the picture the man looked happy. He looked like he was enjoying his vacation and could have been “King Of The Waterslide” for the day.
Because the picture made us laugh and my mother slightly blush, we kept it. Throughout a good portion of my lifetime, we’d go through old photographs and always giggle when we found the one of the stranger on the waterslide.
“Mom, look! It’s that strange man you took a picture of on vacation.” We thought we were hilarious.
“He looked like your dad.” Always her natural defense.
She had taken other pictures. She even had one or two of my dad riding the waterslide. It never mattered. We loved looking at and studying the stranger’s picture. We wondered who he was, where he came from, and if his wife had gotten a good picture of him as he enjoyed their vacation.
If you look back through your pictures, the real printed out ones as well as the digital ones stored on your devices, you might find a stranger or two. In the background, or standing next to your child as they wait their turn to go down a slide, is probably a stranger.
Little pieces of other people’s lives happening around us. Tiny connections to a person who stood next to us, or behind us as we snap a selfie.
Writing is a lot like the man in the picture. Do you see the stranger on the waterslide? Do you ever wonder who is behind this screen? What I’m really like? What is my family like? Do you keep an image because you liked the picture?
I hope so.
I treasure those unknown encounters. Just like I adored a photograph of a stranger sliding down a waterslide. He always made me smile.