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.


Spring break at Mammoth Cave

My sons and I had decided to return to Washington, D.C., for Spring Break this year as it was our favorite past trip and we wanted to relive it. We resolved not to wreck the car on the way home this time. But then Saturday before we were to leave, the forecast called for solid rain all week everywhere east of the Mississippi. None of us wanted to walk the National Mall in the rain.

So we scuttled our D.C. plans and set our sights on Mammoth Cave. We first visited on the way home from our Tennessee trip four years ago. We couldn’t get a guided tour; those had to be booked in advance. So we vowed to return. This would be the year. Let it rain; we’d be dry underground.

Into Mammoth Cave

Caves have figured into our Spring Breaks before: Marengo Cave in 2007 and Meramec Caverns in 2013. This is tourist caving — walkways guide the way, and stairs help you descend the depths. But where Marengo and Meramec were tourist attractions with all the attendant kitsch, Mammoth Cave is a national park with uniformed park rangers leading the tours. Not only is Mammoth the finest of these caves, but we learned something useful about caves from our guides.

Inside Mammoth Cave

Our morning tour took us two miles in and 300 feet down. Behold, the power of water, eroding limestone for thousands of years. The ranger clarified that carbonic acid in the water did the work. That’s the same stuff that makes your soda fizzy, except it’s 500 times more powerful in your soda.

Inside Mammoth Cave

Our second tour featured more than 500 steps down to reach this room. As you can see, we were part of a large tour group. The ranger told us that Spring Break is always crazy busy, but come back a month later and we would be in a group of maybe 20.

Tour group

Caves are naturally utterly dark. The park service strung lights throughout so we could see, but even then the light was challenging for photography. Tripods were prohibited. So I set my Canon PowerShot S95 to ISO 1600 and shot RAW so I’d have plenty of flexibility to make something of my photos. I shot probably 50 photos down there and these five are the only ones worth sharing. Even at such a high ISO, exposures were long and camera shake was a problem.

Inside Mammoth Cave

Normally I come home elated (and tired) from a Spring Break trip, but even though we had a great time in the cave I couldn’t shake considerable sadness as we drove home. My older son graduates high school soon and heads off to college in the fall. I’ve loved our Spring Break vacations as a trio and will miss them.


Captured: Battle of Tippecanoe Monument

Battle of Tippecanoe Monument

On a day in early November of 1811, American Indians fighting for their independence in the young Indiana Territory were dealt a crushing defeat on this land just north and a bit east of what is now Lafayette. Many Shawnee had settled in the area, which made white settlers nervous, and tensions began to mount. Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison brought his army nearby; Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet led Shawnee forces in an ill-fated attack against them. Both sides suffered many casualties, but ultimately Harrison’s army drove the Shawnee out of the region.

On a day in early April of 2007, my sons and I stopped at the battle site, which is now a park with this 1908 monument as its centerpiece. My youngest son lingered here, solemnly reading the plaques on each side which counted the American dead and noted the number of Indian dead simply as “unknown.”

My sons and I also like to visit my alma mater for its annual homecoming bonfire. It’s a monster! Check out photos from this year and last year.