Let’s travel back in time

Ah, the film photography era. I am a proud millennial, and as such, my childhood was documented on film cameras. There was a special thrill that arose from filling up a roll, dropping it off at a drug store or big box retailer, and waiting eagerly for days to get your pictures back. You could relive memories of class field trips, family vacations, and major milestones like birthdays and weddings. You would also try to destroy any horribly embarrassing evidence of frumpy outfits your parents forced you to wear or moments when you were in the bath or just inexplicably naked as a toddler. You wouldn’t always succeed and would have mere seconds to brace yourself before they were shown to high school sweethearts or a gleeful sadist on the staff of your high school yearbook committee.


I recall major drawbacks to the old method of documenting our lives: first of all, it took serious skill to get a good shot with the right lighting and all of your subjects in the frame. Second, you had no way of knowing before you sent your photos off for development if they were going to be gorgeous or utter garbage that cost money to print and later destroy. Finally, if you lost the photos or the negatives, you would be up a creek if you wished to recover the snaps you took. There was no cloud storage to rely on if your childhood home was damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster or if boxes were misplaced during a move. If you or your photo developer did not document the date on the back of the photo, you could be guessing what year your picture was taken. Also, if you inherited someone else’s photos and they did not write the names or the activity of whatever was occurring in the shot, you could be at a loss for piecing together whatever you had in your possession.


All of this background ties in to a project I undertook in May 2020. I had been in quarantine since mid March, and there was little to do outside of the home. My sister asked if I had photos of her on her childhood pony because she wanted to use one for a work project. Fortunately, we were in luck: I happened to have a gleeful mid-nineties photo of her with her pony, grinning from ear to ear at the photographer (likely my mother). As we discussed how I would get the digital copy to her, we decided that it would be a good idea to create a shared album in Google Photos of our old family pictures. We live in different cities and our parents grew up in another state, so seeing family members in person can be difficult to coordinate. (As of the publication of this blog post, I have not seen a blood relative in person in one year, three weeks and two days due to COVID 19. I desperately hope that I will be able to safely visit and hug my aging family members before the clock runs out.) I have been sitting on a decrepit shoe box filled with family photos that my husband grumbles about each time we move houses. “Why don’t you do something will all these photos?” he asks regularly, waiting for me to free up space in our tiny apartment. Much to his chagrin, I have not destroyed the physical copies of the photos even after scanning them into the cloud. I toe a fine line between being sentimental and being a hoarder of precious memories. Perhaps my therapist and I can delve into this in more detail in a future session.


While I have no plans of sharing every single one of the dozens of images I have with the Internet at large, I will put up a few that are meaningful in some way. Hope you enjoy looking into this with me!

Before we get into photos of yours truly, I ended up with two images of my great grandmother, Hilda. Hilda birthed my maternal grandfather in the early 1920s and claimed relation to St. John Neumann. First, we have a silhouette of her, and the cursive writing at the bottom right states, “Atlantic City, N.J. late 1920’s?” Your guess is as good as mine, anonymous pink pen wielder.

Silhouette of Hilda N Benda - Atlantic City, N.J. late 1920's?
My great grandmother, Hilda N. Benda

Fortunately, I do have a face to go with the silhouette. This photo booth strip features Hilda! The back of it has a cursive scrawl in pencil that says, “Hilda Jane 1935, Some kid, Eh!” These two artifacts are the only physical remnants I have of my family before my grandparents. I have no photos of anyone else from her generation from anywhere else in my family. Since she passed long before I was born, I know little about her other than stories.

Hilda Jane 1935 Some Kid, Eh!
My great grandmother in the 1930s

We will now move into the next generation. (No, Sir Patrick Stewart is not here.)

Whitman Archer and Mary Archer
My paternal grandparents. This photo was in everyone’s home on my father’s side of the family when I was growing up. There is another photo with these two and their five living children, but I can’t locate my copy of it.

These two are my father’s parents. They are the only grandparents I was able to meet since both of my mother’s parents died years before I came into the world. My grandfather was a WWII veteran who later worked for NASA while my grandmother was a homemaker, and they had six children in the baby boomer era. We lost both of them in the summer of 2000. I have one photo of my maternal grandfather and nothing of my maternal grandmother. It was strange to me when my peers not only had living grandparents but were often close to them. I was separated from my grandparents by a four to six hour drive in a time when long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, so we only really saw each other at holidays, weddings and funerals. There is so much mystery around my family that I slowly uncover as years go on.

(Bendas)

Joan, Mary, Joe, Liz and Cookie Benda
My mother, my aunt Mary, my uncle Joe, and my aunt Liz with their best girl, Cookie

This group of kiddos is full of boomers. On the far left, you will see my mother rocking a pair of big glasses. The tall one is the eldest child, my aunt Mary. The only boy there is my mother’s twin brother, Joe. On the end stands my aunt Liz petting their dog, Cookie.

Chuck and Mary
Can’t you feel the fatherly love as his younger child explores the world around her? It would be a shame if someone ruined it

I don’t have many photos of my dad and me from my childhood. There are a couple of reasons for this: one, my parents were not on great terms with each other when I was born, and they separated a month before my fourth birthday. Two, the majority of the photos taken during my early years were snapped by my dad. Therefore, there are plenty of photos of me with my estranged mother, my sister, or by myself, but shockingly few of them with him. What I do have is this perfect representation of our personalities: I am the little tyke on the left zeroing in on something on the ground that I found interesting. My dad, of course, is the grown man behind me, ready to pull a prank on me when I least suspect it. Maybe I really needed a bath?

Anne and Mary
The sweaters. The skirts. The Mary Jane shoes. What a time to be alive

Man, did anyone else have to wear matching outfits with their siblings? My husband was an only child and therefore did not experience this unique form of torture. This was our first day of school; if I am not mistaken, I was headed to pre-kindergarten and my sister Anne was going into third grade. This is the only first day of school photo that I know of from my childhood; the craziness of the years that followed did not allow for the occasion to become a Kodak moment. (Kids, if you don’t know what that is, Kodak was a major photography company that folded when we all scurried into the digital age and the economy went to crap. One of their advertising campaigns suggested that a time that you would want to photograph would be a Kodak moment.)

(us with Patchee)

Anne, Mary & Patchee
This little pony taught us that friendship is magic

I grew up with cats, dogs and horses. My sister is in the foreground, I am rocking that red beanie and turquoise coat in the background, and we are hanging out in the snow with my sister’s pony. Taking a photo like this today with an iPhone or a Pixel or any other smartphone would be a piece of cake; in the early 1990s, this was probably taken on the expensive SLR camera that my dad owned before my parents split. But hey, the photo IS cute.

Mary
Oh, to be five and have no cares whatsoever about what you look like

AHHHHHH! What is this travesty? If you went to public school in the nineties, you probably had a school photo with a tacky background like this. You also probably had no fashion sense and rocked garments like a collared button down with a denim jumper and giant pink glasses. (Guilty. Oh, so, so guilty.) It also took weeks if not months to get your school photos back because film was still king. If you missed your school’s picture day or if you blinked in your photo (again, guilty), you would have to be sure to keep track of the makeup picture day and hope that you kept your eyes open this time around. Some kids missed both days and wound up having no yearbook photo at all. It was a dark time.

Mary
This set of stairs led to the courtyard in the center of my high school. We were never allowed to use them without permission; in this case, a hurried photo session before being shoved out the door with a diploma.

The conclusion to my film photo sharing includes this one which is a cheat of sorts: my senior photo. When this photo was taken, I had buried a friend who died unexpectedly a few weeks prior. I was grappling with grief and severe depression about the transition to adulthood, and I was at the beginning of a toxic relationship that would stretch far too long into my early twenties. While my peers were able to leave home, attend college in different cities and really live their lives, I stayed behind while my mother and boyfriend fed me lies about how incapable I was.

Oof. Deep breath. Moving on!

This photo is a cheat because it was shot on a digital camera, but I ended up with SO many physical copies of it. This was 2008 when cameras and iPods were usually separate devices from our cell phones. Camera phones definitely existed ,but the pictures that came out of their tiny lenses and screens were awful. If you were going on a trip or had an event that you wanted to remember, using a dinky flip phone to create a postage stamp-sized image was not ideal. I knew one person in my entire high school who had an iPhone by the time I graduated in June 2009. My physical photo collection largely ends with this one because I did have a digital camera and therefore didn’t bother with film anymore. My family was among many that abandoned film for pixels and led to the death of companies like Kodak and Polaroid. I take at least one photo nearly every day now because I can easily take one with my phone, edit it, share it with the world or delete it without telling a soul. When all of us living today have ceased to exist, the photos and videos of me and millions of other regular schmucks will live on in the cloud. Isn’t that nuts?

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