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  • When my first daughter was born, my mother-in-law told me to take photographs of her hands.

    They change so quickly, someday you will want to remember them.

    She told me this when she came to help out the week following my daughter’s birth, just days after the spring Equinox, when the light, finally, outweighed the darkness. She had rented a room in town and showed up at our house with a bucket, a pair of yellow rubber gloves, her apron, a bag of groceries and an endless capacity for kindness. For this, I adored my mother-in-law, and I still do. She is helpful to the core. She has an astonishing memory and makes copious notes about everything she has ever done. She tries things out, evaluates them, makes modifications, and does a better job the next time. She knew exactly what kind of help I needed, and knew enough to bring her own supplies. My mother-in-law is almost always right.

    So one day I took my tiny girl outside after a nap and snapped an entire roll of pictures of her hands. It was tricky because the light was low and her hands were in constant wiggly-jerky motion. Trying to capture them on my old 35 mm camera with no automatic anything was challenging, but I believed my mother-in-law, I trusted her insight.

    My mother-in-law has been keeping family scrapbooks since the 1950s, well before "scrapbooking" became a verb and a main form of recreation across America. Her scrapbooks are not filled with colorful framed cutouts in red, white and blue for Independence Day, or pre-printed Home is Where the Heart Is sayings, or bright rubber stamped prints of pumpkins, bunnies or Christmas trees. They are filled with people, dates, handwritten notes about what actually happened, and programs of recitals, plays, graduations. The older scrapbooks have aged naturally, not because of push-button computerized filters. She is selective about what she includes and throws everything else -- including negatives -- away. There is no backup box of second-bests or digital copies that were stored on floppies and then DVDs or in the cloud. There is just this one paper record, covering more than 60 years.

    When the prints of my daughter's hands came back from the film shop, I was disappointed. I had made the mistake of setting her down on a white blanket which didn't provide enough contrast for the pale pink of her skin. Most of the images were blurry and the colors were muted, over-exposed. Each image wasn't distinctly different from the next. As a group, they are at best so-so.

    Anyone who ever visits with my in-laws is familiar with the scrapbooks. My in-laws are in their 80's now and the scrapbooks are their main conversational prop. Remember the canoe trip you took in 1985 to the Adirondacks? Remember the yellow submarine birthday party in 1970? Remember the big family trip we took to see the fjords in Norway in 1965? Remember Granny's kitchen table in Manchester, and the view out the window to the ocean? Remember?

    The photos of my daughter's hands were disturbing, too. I had captured a short length of her chubby arm and her hand, but without the rest of her body, they looked oddly corpse-like, like police photos from the scene of a tragic sleeping baby accident. A whole roll of them. I stuffed them back in the envelope, and put them in the box labeled 1997. That wasn't a very good idea, I remember thinking back then.

    Over the years, my mother-in-law's scrapbooks have made me impatient. I am not sentimental by nature and having to always reminisce about the past, a past filled with someone else's memories, can be tedious. I've tried to change the subject: What are we going to do today? What do you think about next week? Next month? Next year? It doesn't work. At their age, they always go back to the scrapbooks. To yesterday.

    Last night I pulled down the box labeled 1997 and found the envelope of photos of my daughter's hands. The images have not improved with age. They are still blurry and lacking in contrast. They are still, mostly, bad snapshots.

    My mother-in-law is selective about the photos she includes, but she is not picky about the quality of the photos. Yes, some are stunning, but intermixed with them are photos that were taken with a throw-away camera, or poorly printed on their early home printer, or include a wind-blown, closed-eye someone. I’ve never asked why these are included, because I know why. She includes them because she wants to capture the whole story. Every picture has some detail -- a landscape, an article of clothing, a person, an object -- worth recounting. Every picture, no matter what the quality, is part of a story. The story. Their story.

    My daughter is graduating from high school this year. Her hands obviously look nothing like these images. It’s hard to believe that I made these little fingers inside my body and fed them with the milk I produced until they rounded out with baby fat. As an infant, she first grasped my finger and later toys, crayons, pencils, pens. Her hands held balls, hula hoops, sticks in the woods and lacrosse sticks. Today, they play guitar and dance swiftly over a computer keyboard, filling out college applications. They hold the hand of her sister, her father, her girlfriends, her grandmother. Someday, maybe, they will hold the hand of her own child.

    I can't say I recall them changing quickly because some of those days were really long days, but change they did none-the-less. Still, my mother-in-law was right. Nearly eighteen years have passed, and that someday -- yesterday’s someday and the tiny hands that reached into the unknowable landscape of the future -- has become today.

    Today, I want to remember.
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