Family snapshots – best put away

I found a family photo recently, and it reminded me of why I don’t look at them.

I found a family snapshot the other day, when we were swapping our office and our bedroom around.

It’s a nice picture, but it made me remember why I don’t keep family photographs on display, because it made me feel unutterably depressed.

I suppose it’s different if you come from a happy, well-adjusted family, but I don’t. In fact, even this picture’s survival was a bone of contention. My mother, some years, ago, binned all the family pictures without telling us, and my sister rescued a few boxes of slides out of the rubbish and sent them to me. My husband scanned this one and printed it out for me, and I’d forgotten all about it since.

It’s a bit out of focus, but is of us all on the beach, and I’m guessing it dates from about 1972, which would make me nine years old. Because I’m small and skinny, though, I look a lot younger. I’m sprawling in my father’s lap in the sand, unaware of all the family tensions around me.

1972 would make my parents in this photo 45 years old, the same age I am now, which is something of a shock.

Dad looks happy and fit and well, in his army swimming shorts and his clip-on sunglasses. He was a miner and did hard physical labour all his life, and you can see he’s well-muscled with no fat on him. And yet, 16 years from this picture, he would be dead – struck down by a massive coronary at only 61. Afterwards, the family would split apart and never fully recover. 

My mother also looks pretty happy, but you can’t tell she has a bad back in this picture. It would be the bane of her existence, and the painkillers would distance her from her family. She’s wearing a swimming costume, which is strange, because I don’t remember her doing that at this age. When I was four, she stopped going in the water, saying it was bad for her insides. Actually, she may have had a point. We took our holidays on the east coast and bathing in the North Sea requires the constitution of an ox.  

Next to her is my eldest brother, aged maybe 22. He left home when I was three and never came back much, so we were virtual strangers until my father’s death in 1987. Our relationship was never strong and since my mother’s death last year, when we disagreed about most things, he has severed all ties. His wife – at this point still his girlfriend – is probably behind the camera, taking the picture. 

The last person in the photo is my middle brother at far left, who in this shot must be about 15. He’s giving my mother a ‘dead leg’ – one of his favourite occupations: he was always tickling her and making her squeal. The most naturally affectionate of us all, a year after this picture was taken, he would leave home at the age of 16, then ask to come back and my parents would refuse. They would leave his things in the garden, and I’d rejoice because I was so sick of him bullying me on a daily basis. We haven’t seen each other in 20 years. 

Only later would I realise how unusual my family was, because when you grow up in a dysfunctional family, weird behaviour is quite normal. My eldest brother left at 15, and my sister at 17 – my parents keen to ‘get them off our hands’. I would hang on a bit longer, until I was 18, but when I left, like the others, I scarcely went back again. My mother had a breakdown after I left, and my father had to give up night work to keep her company, which was no fun for either of them. Grindingly unhappy for decades, they were not of the class or educational background to even consider divorce. 

There is one other person not in this photo – my sister, the eldest of us and already, at 25, a mother of two children aged five and six.

She and I, at least, these 36 years later, are still speaking – as far as I know, the only two people in the family who are. Maybe it is because of our characters (though I don’t think so) or maybe it’s because, despite our differences, we are women and therefore try that much harder to maintain a relationship.

Psychologists tell you not to hang on to residue from failed relationships, and for most people that means romance. But for me it means family, and there’s no point in crying over spilt milk. So no, I don’t keep out family photographs. I have boxes of them tucked away, of course, labelled for other people to make use of in the future, but I confine myself to those from the 1950s and earlier, before I was born, and where I can regard them with disinterest.


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