A Trip Though Time By Christine Treadwell
She’s got her little hands around the box before I can stop her. Sophie, my second pride and joy. My granddaughter.
‘Darling, no, let’s leave that—’
My words make it more alluring. She slides it from between the thick volumes on the same level of the bookshelf. I placed it there because I figured she wouldn’t be interested if I didn’t place it on the same level as her books and toys. If only my back allowed me to reach the highest shelf.
I hurry forward and try to pry the box from her hands before she’s opened it, but in the time I take to cross the living room the lid is on the carpet. That cardboard must be – what? Thirty years old? It’s flaking and covered in dust.
She frowns and plucks a black-and-white photo from the top of the pile. I wonder if she’s ever held a photograph. Half the things she touches have screens.
Her eyes widen. ‘Who’s that?’
She gives me the picture. Lapland, 1960. I was ten. I’m standing next to a reindeer, wearing a Father Christmas hat and grinning.
She’ll have an almighty tantrum if I take it now. We go to the sofa. She grabs the lid and sits with the box on her lap.
I point at my face. My finger shakes.
‘That was me.’
‘No way! You’re too old!’
I laugh. ‘I wasn’t always! That was me long ago.’
‘You’re so little, and the– the–’
‘Cool! Did you meet him?’
I say nothing and wink. She says that’s ah-maze-zing, sounding out the word as if trying it for the first time.
She puts that picture back and takes the one behind it from the box. America, 1963. New York. My Dad bribed me with the fur coat and hat I’m wearing for this. We’re standing on a street flanked by the tallest buildings I had ever seen in one place. I play the part of the brooding teenager well: arms folded, scowling. It’s hard to imagine my petal behaving like this in a few years.
She’s not as interested in this photo. She finds another. Me and my first boyfriend. June 1968. We’re in Paris, as cheesy as it sounds. His parents owned a house there and offered to take me along for a weeklong trip. His arm is around me. I remember this day. We went into a patisserie before this and he smelt of sweets.
Sophie frowns at the photo, points at the boy. ‘Is that Grandad?’
That one gets dumped back into the box too.
She finds another and squeals at the picture of me next to Mickey Mouse. Disneyland Florida, 1972. 22-year-old me hadn’t wanted to go, but Mum had insisted we take a last trip as a family before Dad’s dementia claimed him. Two months later and he was in a home. A year after that he died. The doctors called it early onset. He was 53.
My daughter and Sophie went to the same Disneyland when she was one. Before the diagnosis. Joanie asked me to come, but I couldn’t. I wanted to remember that place as it was. I swallow the lump in my throat.
‘You’re old in this one!’
I laugh. I thought I was ancient. No longer a child. Now…
She’s done with that picture too. I’m watching a movie on a projector but a roll of film or two is absent. My life played out in strange increments. Missing most of the details yet still progressing.
The next photo has Grandad in it, and my petal squeals and laughs at his hands around my waist. She says we’re cute and then it’s back to Paris again. This time we’re fulfilling every cheesy couple’s dream and standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. 1975.
My age convinced my mother I’d be a spinster until that year. My daughter married when Sophie was 2, she was 36. I didn’t have Joanie until I was 30. Attitudes have changed for the better.
‘How old are you now?’
The next set of photos show her mother’s childhood. We didn’t take many in our first five years of marriage because we couldn’t afford a camera. My husband was made redundant and spent a year out of work, and we spent the following four paying off debts. I’m glad no photos exist of that time; I’m more than happy to forget it.
But then there was my girl. 1980. We had to spoil you. Holidays every year, the photos of which your daughter is now holding and staring at with interest. India. Vermont. California. Spain. You didn’t appear to grow between 1988 and 90, but between 1992 and 93 you gained three inches.
I know the dates on the backs of each picture off by heart. 1993. 94. 95… a break the year Mum died. I can’t believe we’ve reached the millennium. My youth has vanished from my petal’s mind, replaced by never seen pictures of her mother. It’s gone in real life too. Where did those years go? The nostalgia is painful.
There she is again. Joanie at 21. Graduated from university with a 1st in Psychology. I’ve never been prouder.
‘Mummy was smart!’
I nod. ‘The smartest.’
The next set is of me and my husband. Derek was older than me by ten years, and most of the following few images were trips we took following his retirement. 2010 was my favourite. Back to Spain. Maybe it should be bittersweet – it’s the last trip we ever got to take. But still I smile as my petal roots through the photos. There are twelve at least.
She flicks through them, searching for more with her mother in them I bet. I see one from the funeral and I’m glad she doesn’t comprehend the flower arrangements spelling DAD and HUSBAND.
I look away for a moment—the motion of the images makes me nauseous. When I turn back, she’s found herself. Joanie’s first sonogram. Five years ago. The next shows Joanie, exhausted and sweating, with a pink Sophie tucked into the crook of her left arm.
She jabs her own face. ‘Me!’
I smile. ‘Yes, sweetie. That’s you!’
She laughs and views the following few shots with care and more attention than any of the others got. Her second and last trip with her mother at two. Joanie has no hair and wears a scarf to cover her head. We had to come home early because it proved too much. Heat exhaustion. I kept telling her Australia was an awful idea, but I wished I hadn’t now. I should have let her enjoy what little time we had on her final holiday.
The last picture of Sophie with her mother is one we had professionally done and altered. We both agreed that the last photo of them together shouldn’t be of her mother with her cheeks sunken and her skin clammy and grey. She left us not a week later.
My petal spends a minute looking at this one. She touches the part where her mother’s arm is around her waist, trying to hold the two-year-old still for long enough to get the photo. Sophie is laughing and reaching for her mother’s cheek. Joanie smiles in this picture. Wider than she had in months. They were living with me by then.
Joanie made me promise I’d give her that photo. That Sophie would never forget her face. Guilt bites my stomach.
I say, ‘You keep that one.’
Her mouth falls open. ‘Really?’
She presses the image to her chest. I fight back tears.
I keep no photos of my daughter’s funeral, don’t want or need the reminder of why I am raising my grandchild. That I’ve outlived my daughter. The death of my husband was an inevitable consequence of dating someone older than myself by a decade. Losing her…
She’s done with the box. Picks up the lid and replaces it. You’d have both loved her, my dears.
I ask her to put the box on the shelf and she does, then she clambers back onto the sofa. Her mother’s picture on the empty seat to her right. She fidgets for a while before speaking, twisting her flexible fingers into impossible shapes. It’s as if she is two again. Those long silences. The six months after the funeral when she barely spoke.
‘You’re okay,’ I say.
‘I miss her.’
‘I know. So do I.’
She hugs me. Hands wrapped around my waist. Her father isn’t in the picture. It’s just us. At first, I wondered how we would cope. My grief was a knife in my chest every day for the first eighteen months, and it wasn’t much better in the following six. But the little person whose arms are a vice around my waist kept me from succumbing to the pain. She makes me smile again even if pain fills each one because Joanie isn’t beside me watching her amazing daughter grow. I hope Sophie doesn’t notice.
I have the memories, snapshots of happy times, and a reason to keep making new ones.
After five minutes, she lets go of my waist.
‘How about we plan a trip of our own?’
Her grin has returned and she squeals and hugs me once more.
I’m glad she grabbed that box. You’re watching and smiling. Mum, Dad and Joanie. I feel it.