Thursday, March 12, 2020

Birthday Books

On a bookshelf in our family room, there are several photo albums wedged together. Some of these comprise photos I printed out (from film) and placed between the pages myself. There’s one from high school, a couple from my college years, and more from my post-college adventures in Colorado and Ireland.

The other albums are collections of childhood photos my mother gave me years ago. She was a master photo album-maker throughout the years of my childhood, keeping visual records of every trip we took, various childhood milestones, birthday parties and ski races, soccer camps and hiking trips – all compiled by year and labeled neatly. And then, several years ago, she took these apart, reassembled them by child, and gifted books to my brothers and me.

I once had great aspirations of keeping similar photo albums – thus, the college and immediately post-college years represented on my shelf. But then life got busier – and digital photos came into being. While I love the ease of taking and sharing images now, I rarely have them printed out anymore, let alone put neatly into albums with each event carefully labeled.

My husband and I were married 15 years ago, right around the time digital was really pushing film photography out of the way. In our bedroom, I have a box of wedding photos – something like 600 hundred of them – along with a lovely album that may someday contain those photos. And, while my older two children have a lovely baby book, my youngest has envelopes of photos somewhere that I may someday locate and organize into a book.

But – every year, each kid gets a book for his or her birthday. The photos are not individually printed and carefully placed between sticky-backed paperboard and clingy plastic cover, nor are they tucked by those little corner tabs onto pages. Rather, I download my photos onto a website, compile them there onto virtual pages, and then, through some photo site magic, they are printed directly onto pages, bound into a personalized book, and shipped to my doorstep.

This is not quite the same as the old photo albums, of course. The kids won’t be able, decades from now, to pull out a photo and turn it over to see if there are names or a date penciled carefully onto the back. But they serve as a record, nonetheless, and they have become a beloved birthday tradition – for both the receivers and the giver.

The kids like to turn the pages – quickly on the first look, then more slowly – to remember what they’ve done over the past 12 months, where they’ve been, and with whom. Like the photos from my childhood, these images show soccer games and skiing buddies, treks through the mountains, family trips and gatherings, sleepovers and time spent with friends. There are often sighs of happy contentment and a few giggles as the kids turn through the year just passed.

Making the books is time-consuming, and it is often agonizing to whittle the hundreds of digital photos I’ve taken over the course of a year down to a much smaller number that will fit within a book. But I love to go through those photos and remember, too. It’s a reminder to take a deep breath and enjoy these moments, even as they seem to fly by.

Often, on their birthdays, or after the birthday chaos has quieted some, the kids will go into the other room, pull out the collection of books from earlier birthdays, and flip through those as well. I think they like to remember how little they once were – to them it seems like forever ago, to me just the other day – to see traditions unfold across the years and new adventures mixed in.

Sometimes, one of my children will mention a place I’ve been to or a person I’ve shared stories with, and I’m able to pull a dusty album off the shelf and find a photo of that time, place, or personality. I hope these birthday books stand the test of time and go with my children wherever they wander. Then, someday, they can pull a book off a shelf, remember and share the stories held within.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay was published in the Littleton Record as Meghan's Close to Home column on February 14, 2020.

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