Old Photographs

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We’ve all seen it done in romantic comedies and sitcoms too numerous to count.  At some point, our forlorn, love torn, storm tossed protagonist (male or female) pulls out a picture of the “one that got away” and strikes a match.  They hold the flame to the corner of the photo and watch with a tearful expression as the fire purges the memory, and supposedly the pain, from their hearts and lives.  With their past cleansed by the flame, they can now move on to the new love interest that has inevitably and yet somehow unexpectedly dropped into their lap.  While these scenes make for good television and movie moments, they play out very differently in the real world where life doesn’t have a 120 minute time frame.  Real life is much bigger, longer, and more complicated than even the most convoluted rom com out there. 

The modern version of this powerful act of catharsis is the purging of all digital photographs that connect you to a former significant other.  While this process can be invigorating and may even feel very satisfying, particularly in the wake of a nasty break-up, I would urge the reader to err on the side of caution when attempting to erase memories in this fashion.  Regardless of how hurt, betrayed, or enraged you feel now, in this moment of heated passion, I can assure you that a day will come when you will think of your erstwhile companion and smile….even in spite of yourself.  Time has a way of dulling the pain that feels so excruciating now, blunting the edges of betrayal and allowing you to see once again that not all of the times you shared were horrible and worth forgetting.

Years ago, I was in a relationship that I was sure was “it.”  I had found my soul mate and I had nothing left to worry about or fear.  Then one day my significant other was looking for something and she found a picture and a note from a former girlfriend.  They were innocent enough, as most things at the ripe old age of seventeen are, but for some reason they were threatening to my then partner despite being more than four years in my past.  She began questioning my commitment to our relationship and whether I was fully invested in “the now” and not looking back towards my past with hopeful eyes.  So in a bitter and quite frankly pissed off moment I decided to do something dramatic to show my commitment and my complete severance with the past.

I took the picture and the small hand-written note that was with it, and I burned them.

But, even as the flames were still eating through the slip of paper the note was written on, I think I began to regret the decision.  I held it a little too long and singed the hair off my thumb and index finger on my left hand before finally dropping the last remnants onto the grill and watching them curl, blacken, and finally blow away as fine white ash.  I expected to feel that rush of renewal and closure that always seems to play across the face of the protagonist on the big screen (or the small one) after such a move.  Instead, I felt cold and a bit sad.  I had carried that small picture and sweet little note for more than four years in my wallet, quite a bit longer than the relationship they represented had even lasted, and now they were gone.

At the time, I brushed off the feeling of loss, and got on with my life.  The relationship I was in at the time ran its course, and we ended up going our separate ways.  Years later, I met a new woman, fell in love, and we’re now married with a bubbling two year-old daughter and a very happy and full life together.  The girl I was with at the time, and the one from the picture, have both gone their own way through life and have happy families of their own.  But there are still moments when I wish I could pull out that note and read it again, or see that faded picture from so long ago one more time.  You see, it’s not that I miss the girl in the picture or the brief relationship we had together.  We are very different people now, and my life is as happy and full as I could ever hope for it to be.  I have absolutely no regrets about how things turned out and I’m convinced that this was God’s design for my life from the beginning.

I miss that picture and that note because they are a snapshot of a good memory from that awkward period in life sandwiched between adolescence and full blown maturity.  It’s so easy to remember the bad times in the years that follow that you don’t need pictures and mementos to accomplish it.  The painful memories stand out all by themselves and often with stark clarity.  I can describe in minute detail every bad beat I ever took at the poker table, sadly enough, but the big wins are a lot more difficult to really remember.  The same holds true with our memories, and it’s helpful to be able to dust off a positive memory every now and then and recall the good times.  A small token like a picture, a ribbon, a lock of hair, or a sweet note can be the key to unlocking the details of those warm and fuzzy memories that otherwise would just be fuzzy.

It’s been thirteen years now since I lit a match and burned that picture and note.  I can still remember the girl’s name, and I can recall some of the note though not all of it.  The greeting….Hey, Sweetpea….stands out, but the rest is just a fog of general feelings and impressions more than recalled words.  I can still see the picture in my mind, though I’m sure what I see in my head probably has little to do with the wallet size portrait I used to hold in my hand.  With each year, the details of that memory fade a little more.  So, with the benefit of thirteen years of perspective and quiet reflection, I wish I had done things differently.  In a moment fueled by heated emotions rather than rational consideration I acted and the consequences have been reverberating with me ever since.

My advice…. Don’t burn old pictures.  Your past is a part of who you are today, and you should hold onto every single piece of it that you can.  You never know what you might miss years from now, when the heated emotions have cooled.  And a picture, once burned, is nothing more than ashes on the wind…

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