Photography, Stories Told

Memories lost, memories created, memories kept

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.

I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

Dad Garrett 2001 b

Dad Garrett 2001 c.jpg

Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Damion 2001 a

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Damion Garrett 2001 a

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.

The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.

Indianapolis 2005

In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.

Indiana History Tour 2007

In 2009 we visited Washington, DC, and drove the National Road home. It was probably our greatest trip, generating the happiest memories. Right up until the moment we wrecked our car.

Washington DC 2009

In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.

Tennessee 2011

In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.

Route 66 2013

In 2015 we drove the old Dixie Highway down to Mammoth Cave. It was the last spring break with Damion, who graduated high school that year.

Mammoth Cave 2015.jpg

And this year Garrett and I did Cincinnati: the American Sign Museum, the zoo, the Taft Museum, the suspension bridge, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s.

Cincinnati 2017

There, you’ve watched my sons grow up! And I’ve relived these memories we chose to make together.

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them.

Mission accomplished. Garrett graduated high school on Saturday.

I know from experience with my stepchildren that parenting doesn’t really end until around age 25. Our kids all need at least some parental guidance in those early young-adult years.

But it’s a new phase of life for me, of moving forward into life with my new wife. But this time I get to do it with memories intact.

These photos are © 2000-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved. I will not grant permission to republish them.

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Music, Stories Told

Singing to soothe my sons

I have three sons — a stepson pushing 30 and two teens. I’ve been thinking back on their lives as one of my sons turns 18 today and is making transitions toward his adult life.

I was there when the younger two boys entered the world. I did my best to be a good dad to my baby boys, and my fatherly duties naturally included soothing them when they were unhappy or sick. Like most kids, they’re unmistakably like their mother and father but night-and-day different from each other. But when they were in distress, both of them calmed down when I sang to them.

The older son was good natured from the start. It’s as if he awoke every morning and said to himself, “I think I’m going to have a happy day, and make sure everybody around me does too,” and then set about making it so. He filled his days with big smiles for everyone who caught his gaze. He encountered everything – toy, television show, meal, our dog, other children – with such joy and delight you’d think it was long lost and beloved.

Yet colic plagued him the first nine months of his life. He’d start to feel bad by late afternoon each day, and by the time I came home from work he was fully miserable and wailing like an air-raid siren. His frazzled mother immediately handed him off to me and and disappeared to seek relief.

Now, I cared about my poor son’s suffering. But honestly, I mostly just wanted his eardrum-piercing shrieks to end. You could hear the boy out in the yard even when all the windows and doors were closed. I quickly figured out that holding him to my chest as I paced through the house calmed him some. I tried singing to him as I paced and found that some songs calmed him a little while others had no effect. So I tried every song in my repertoire. When I sang this obscure Paul McCartney and Wings song to him, he went limp and silent in my arms. So I sang it to him over and over, pacing the length of our ranch-style home every night for hours at a time. Finally, blessedly, the colic ended.

My younger son, on the other hand, approached life with steely determination. Think Chuck Norris out to get the bad guys. The boy quickly sized up a situation, identified his goal, and set about achieving it. His first conquest was the couch. It was cute at first to watch him grunt and struggle to pull himself up off the floor and onto the seat cushions. But after he achieved that, he set his mountain-climber sights on the couch’s arm, then the side table, and then the side-table’s lamp, which was not going to end well. We had to keep an eagle eye on that kid!

But with each new objective his desires outpaced his abilities at first. He would try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, getting angrier and angrier all the way. Soon his frustration would consume him and he’d just cry in hard fury, turning brick red and gasping through his sobs. I’d collect him into my arms, fall back into the big comfy recliner, and rock while I sang to him just hoping he’d catch a breath! At first this would make him cry harder, as if he was determined to stay angry. But soon he’d start to relax, and the crying would ebb, and finally he’d breathe easy. This gentle Paul Simon song was easy to sing quietly to him and soon I sang it habitually. After a while, just hearing me sing it calmed him.

Do you have children? What songs did you sing to them?

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2012.

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Personal

Reflecting on 20 years in Indianapolis

2014 is turning out to be a year of many anniversaries and passages for me. I’ve been sharing many of them; here’s another.

On the circle

I moved to Indianapolis at the end of August in 1994. My 20 years here can be divided into two 10-year periods: before and after my wife decided not to be married to me anymore.

Terre Haute doesn’t get much positive press, but I liked the small-city vibe and enjoyed living there. It was remarkable that I could find work in software development there, as the city wasn’t exactly a high-tech hub. But when the company I worked for started to fail, I knew it was time to go. I wanted to stay in Indiana, and the jobs in my field were concentrated in Indianapolis. So I got a job and an apartment here. I reflected once before here that I struggled to adapt to the bigger-city life, but I think I’ve finally done it.

A year later my girlfriend moved here and we married. Our marriage was a disaster, and it’s better for everybody that it ended. The last couple years we were together and the couple years it took for our divorce to work through the legal system were deeply destructive. They were the worst years of my life. I came out of it with considerable emotional damage that took me a long time to work through.

I suppose the best response to divorce is to build a better life afterward, and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve accomplished a great deal in my career. I’ve pursued my interests: writing, cameras and photography, and the old roads. I’ve made a comfortable home where I’ve raised my sons, at least on the days our custody agreement places them with me.

I’ve doubled down on parenthood. I’d wanted marriage and children from the time I was a teenager. But my marriage was filled with strife, and I was exhausted and depressed so much of the time that I lacked the energy to be the dad I’d always wanted to be. I still think it’s a shame that my sons didn’t get a whole, healthy, and functioning family. But what they have gotten since the divorce is a whole, healthy, and functioning father who has done his best to raise them into fine men.

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Music, Stories Told

Singing to soothe my sons

I have three sons – a stepson grown and gone, a teen, and an almost teen. I was there when the younger two came into the world. I did my best to be a good dad to my baby boys, though I freely admit I enjoy parenting more and more the older they get! Naturally, my fatherly duties included soothing them when they were unhappy or sick. Like most kids, they’re unmistakably like their mother and father but night-and-day different from each other. But when they were in distress, they both calmed down when I sang to them.

The older son was good natured from the start. It’s as if he awoke every morning and said to himself, “I think I’m going to have a happy day,” and then set about making it so. He filled his days with big smiles for everyone who caught his gaze. He encountering everything – toy, television show, meal, our dog, other children – with such joy and delight you’d think it was long lost and beloved.

The colic that plagued him the first nine months of his life stood out in stark relief. Things started going south for him each day by late afternoon. By the time I came home from work he was fully miserable and wailing like an air raid siren. His frazzled mother immediately handed him off to me and and disappeared into the kitchen to seek relief (and make dinner). Now, I cared about my poor son’s suffering. But honestly, I mostly just wanted his eardrum-piercing shrieks to end. Seriously, you could hear the boy out in the yard even when all the windows and doors were closed. I quickly figured out that holding him to my chest as I paced through the house calmed him some. I tried singing to him as I paced and found that some songs calmed him a little while others had no effect. I tried every song in my repertoire. When I sang this obscure Paul McCartney and Wings song to him, he went limp and silent in my arms. So I sang it to him over and over, pacing the length of our ranch-style home every night for hours at a time. Finally, blessedly, the colic ended.

My younger son, on the other hand, approached life with steely determination. Think Chuck Norris out to get the bad guys. The boy quickly sized up a situation, identified his goal, and set about achieving it. His first conquest was the couch. It was cute at first to watch him grunt and struggle to pull himself up off the floor and onto the seat cushions. But after he achieved that, he set his sights on the arm and then the side-table lamp, which was not going to end well. We had to keep an eagle eye on that kid!

But with each new objective his desires at first outpaced his abilities. He would try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, getting angrier and angrier all the way. Soon his frustration would consume him and he’d just cry in hard fury, turning brick red and gasping through his sobs. I’d collect him into my arms, fall back into the big comfy recliner, and rock while I sang to him just hoping he’d catch a breath! At first this would make him cry harder, as if he was determined to stay angry. But soon he’d start to relax, and the crying would ebb, and finally he’d breathe easy. This gentle Paul Simon song was easy to sing quietly to him and soon I sang it habitually. After a while, just hearing me sing it calmed him.

I’m reflecting on this today because tomorrow my older son, still the good-natured optimist, turns 15.

Do you have children? What songs did you sing to them?

I’ve always loved to sing. It soothes me and lifts my spirits. Read that story.

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