Present Tense

Who’s stealing the photos?

familyI just spent a few days with my 94 year-old mother. She has a very nice apartment in a beautiful assisted living facility about 4 hours south of where I live. We’re coming up on the first anniversary of my dad’s death and she is still very sad and very lonely, so my siblings and I do our best to ease her burdens.

For the past couple of months, my mom has been obsessive about her photo albums. She keeps telling us that someone is taking her pictures.

I’ve had this discussion with her at least 20 times, as has my brother who lives about 15 minutes away and sees her several times a week. I always say that I don’t know what’s happening to her pictures and point out that she still has thousands of photos, spanning all of her life and even some from before she was born.

The truth is that over many decades, things get misplaced or we’ve removed a photo here and there for various  celebrations and photo compilations. Or maybe one of us just liked a photo and snagged it for our own memory. Who knows, but it’s a frustrating déjà vu every time I arrive, to be grilled as to “who is taking all of my pictures?”

This last trip, she sent me home with a little album of photos from my wedding. This was after she made me promise that I wouldn’t throw them ‘in the trash’. I assured her that I would not. I told her that they mean as much to me as they do to her. But, that wasn’t quite true.

It’s not true because I finally realized that her obsession with the photos isn’t about the photos. It’s about proof that her life was as full and happy as she believes that it was. These volumes of thousands of photos are what she has left of her life. They are photographic evidence that she and my dad had 70+ years of love and happiness and family.

Having spent a fair amount of time around elderly folks over the past few years, I have seen how their lives shrink as their mobility and abilities shrink. At this point, my mom’s life takes place in a two bedroom apartment. The things in that apartment are of paramount importance to her. She is surrounded by what is familiar and that is her only comfort.

The photos are part of that. They represent the time when her world was big and full and juicy. Photos of parents, children, grandchildren, siblings, friends, family, houses, cars, many, many trips and vacations. Photos of people who are long dead and photos of grandchildren, who now have their own children. She looks through the albums and admits to me that she can’t remember many of the names that go with the hundreds of faces. She often can’t remember ‘which kid belonged to which other kid’.

But, she knows that these people were in her life at some point in the past 94 years. She sees photos of my smiling and handsome Dad and is assured that they were happy and loving and that he really was by her side, as her partner, for 72 years.

We all need this reassurance. That we matter. That we loved and were loved. That we’re here for a reason and that when we’re gone, someone will remember.

March 22, 2015 - Posted by | Musings | , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for the insight. I need to remember this as I try to deal more graciously with my in-laws.

    Comment by pat | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  2. Nice. I, too, am caring for a parent who needs reassurance that her life mattered and still matters. I often wonder about the “things” she is missing and why they’ve taken great importance when she is definitely in a position to replace a chopper or snow globe or cookie tray that somehow disappeared during her move from the home she and Dad shared for 50+ years. They’re just things to me. But to her they are, as you said so eloquently, proof of a life well lived and shared with others who ate Thanksgiving stuffing made with that chopper or who enjoyed playing with the snow globe or who helped make those cookies. Thanks for the reminder that things take on a whole host of memories and become as important as gold is to others.

    Comment by Nancy | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  3. What a wonderful insight; my Mom passed away last week and while going through her things with my sister it was nice to see and remember all the good times she had..

    Comment by Teresa | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  4. Jane, my Mom passed on October 3, 2014, but her situation was very similar to your Mom’s, so I empathize. Your observations helped me understand myself and my reluctance to let go of some things I consider important to me. I worry that I will end up with dementia and other afflictions of the much older. You are so right about the need to know that your life mattered and you will not become an afterthought, thanks for what you give to us

    Comment by Marcia | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  5. Boy, Jane…every once in awhile you write something that hits the nail on the head so hard that it drives that nail right through the wood. You’ve given me a much better understanding of the misgivings my own Dad had when the decision was made to move him in with us. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Comment by thepeacechallenge | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  6. Wow, this is so, so, spot on. I was so lucky to have realized this while I had my folks around, that, it allowed me to enjoy the last 25 years with them.

    Comment by Roberta Callow | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  7. Very insightful and touching post. Both my parents were gone by the time I was 18, so I am not personally experiencing this with them, but as I near older age, I can see this in myself, looking more into the past than I do to the future.

    Comment by chrisco8 | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  8. Thank you for the reminder and an understanding that up until now has been a mystery to me. Thanks!

    Comment by Shellie | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  9. Jane you are awesome and will always be happy that you were there with love, compassion and understanding for her.

    Comment by Judy Te | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  10. Jane . . . what great insight to what is going on with your mom and her obsession with her pictures. Do you think that perhaps the recent obsession is also because she no longer has your Dad to talk to about the past, like she was able to do up until his death? So the pictures have to fill that void in her memory as well. Be well, Jane.

    Comment by Jewel | March 22, 2015 | Reply

  11. I’m only 37 years old, never been married and have no kids. But I have this crazy need to document on my calendar every date I go on, every night out with friends, every picnic or party or anything I attend. I take pictures like crazy. I keep mementos – ticket stubs, wrist bands, cards, souvenirs of everything and everywhere I go. I am finally now just getting rid of an old ratty shirt from my very first boyfriend in high school. I think this is the same thing. I have this need to have “proof” that my life isn’t a waste, proof that I have had friends and loves because there is no “official” record of any of these relationships. I never quite understood why I did all these things, until now. Reassurance that I matter. Thank you Jane.

    Comment by WeezebeanMaryann | March 23, 2015 | Reply

  12. Thanks Jane. Just spent the day with my mom while my dad was recovering from dental surgery. My eyes have been opened as to this loss of memory disease we become familiar with. I have so much appreciation and respect for what my dad does to keep her comfortable and we are in the beginning stages of getting him some help so he can continue some of his daily activities without worrying about her. Her and I discussed his surgery 20 times and she still thinks he was harmed in some sort of accident. What an education I received once again from my two parents.

    Comment by Tim Lankerd | March 23, 2015 | Reply

    • Tim
      I get it. So hard:( Stay strong for them.

      Comment by janelondon | March 27, 2015 | Reply

  13. In the process of caring for my mother in law, whose life seems to have been filled with burden. I often wonder if there is anything at all that will comfort her as we move along the phases of her twilight years. Moving from her home, to our home, then on to assisted living, and now a more “skilled’ environment as her decline progresses. I’m often not sure what at all will help her transition… Thanks for your insight.

    Comment by lizzyc1973 | March 27, 2015 | Reply

    • Don’t beat yourself up if you feel as if you need to do more. I’ve come to the conclusion that we can all only do so much for them. Love them, try and visit and be there for them. Make sure they are safe and cared for. The rest is in the hands of spirit, I think. It’s hard, I know:(
      Take care

      Comment by janelondon | March 27, 2015 | Reply

  14. I was cleaning out my email this morning and saw that I saved this link to read later, and the timing today was perfect! Last night I was talking to my 91-year old father, and missing the person he used to be, and then, for just a few seconds, we had a moment where he was my ‘old’ dad again. It made me so happy and so very sad.

    When my youngest child was a baby, I remember sitting in a square of sunshine on our living room floor with her and feeling like my entire life took place within that square that winter. Later, I reflected that we all begin with a small space as our whole world, and then it gets bigger and bigger until we’re adults and we have the whole world to explore as our own. And now that my parents are getting up there, I’ve been thinking about how later in life our world gets smaller and smaller again and wondering how that must feel.

    Anyway, it’s funny because my dad has dozens and dozens of pictures around his house and I think you really hit the nail on the head in explaining why they’re so important to him. Thanks (belatedly) for this post – I really needed it today!

    Comment by Tracey | June 19, 2015 | Reply

    • Tracey
      Isn’t it amazing how things just appear for us when we need them? I’m so glad this rang true for you. All of my friends are going through elderly parent issues right now and I think that we can all help each other during this time. Each of us has a little insight that is helpful to the next person who will watch their parents age.
      Thanks for the note and I wish you and your parents all the best.

      Comment by janelondon | June 19, 2015 | Reply

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