At first it smells too sweet. I suspect some artificial ploy—some cheap candles hidden in corners and on coffee tables—but the scent wafts in again through the open door leading onto the patio. All at once it smells like sunshine and summer and lake water, and all of them filtered in the weathered wood of a waterfront cabin.
I smile, look over at Clark, wondering if he smells it, too. But my smile drops and my brow furrows, mirroring my older brother. As usual, Clark is thinking about something elsewhere, something I won’t be able to grasp, not really. He looks around the old woman’s living room in slow, sweeping motions. I track his gaze with my own, partly out of loyalty, but mostly out of habit. I start to glance around the space, but nervously turn my gaze back down, toward my small Velcro sandals.
I take a deep breath, trying to hold the present fragrance; trying to commit the sweet smell to memory so it won’t disappear on the gentle breeze coming off the lake. But I think the task might be beyond my abilities. Scents are hard memories to hold. It’s a quality that a photo can’t quite anchor. For all the pictures of pond lilies in waiting rooms, you won’t know how tender they smell if you’ve never waded beside them in the creek. There are things that photos can’t keep, and things that photos keep too well.
Like people. I think photos can anchor people too precisely. Photographs of people make me uneasy. I look over to Clark who stares intently at the photo above the mantle. It always seems intrusive to me, being able to look into carefully framed and hung moments in someone’s life, even from a place you’ve never been, filled with people you’ll never know.
It’s the eyes that bother me the most in these old photographs. Their warm tones replaced with the stark black and white that peers out from behind the glass. The emotions, the thoughts, behind those eyes seemingly decipherable—simplified by the variations of grey the subjects now find themselves in. The subjects, in that moment captured, seem raw in the polished photographs. There’s too much of themselves being confessed from within the print. I keep my eyes turned down.
I wonder if the same thing is true of the Polaroids our mother sorts into scrap books. I suspect not. Clark hates his photo being taken. He’ll stare defiantly into the lens; his brown eyes trained intensely on the camera. Watching it watching him. There would be no pictures taken unknowingly, no piece of him captured without him protesting. Clark seemed to think cameras stole part of you. He thought that cameras stole who you were the very second that a photo was taken, and that the photo took that moment away from you, and kept it.
He eyes the photos that line the walls of this living room, that all exist as spur-of-the moment snapshots stolen from time, from lives, from circumstance and substance. Moments stolen only to echo back from far-past places, between the steady creak of swaying pine trees beyond the cabin walls. Amid the echoes and the pine trees, the sound of the opening and closing of kitchen cabinets—Mrs. Garettson had muttered something about looking for the good teacups. She seems intent on making an occasion out of the fact that she has children sitting in her living room for the first time in years. The Garettsons never had children, which perhaps is why the five- and ten-year-old in her sitting room drew such happy anxiety.
Clark pushes his unruly hair out of his face and leans back heavily beside me on the pinecone-print sofa. He sighs, looks up to the ceiling, sighs again; restlessness preys on children in the homes of old people. There is simply nothing to do. Clark stands suddenly and stuffs his hands in his pockets, taking a slow stride from the couch and toward the wall. I watch him a moment and stand too, as expected, to follow Clark. But Mrs. Garettson totters out of the kitchen with a delicately balanced tea set, so I sit back down on the sofa and look to Clark who drifts obliviously around the edges of the room.
The old woman’s smile widens as she crosses the sunlit space. With each ray of light flickering on her face, the pictures on the wall steal her image, not precisely but distantly, as if they had anchored her there and now strain to hold a familiarity. I can clearly see the resemblances between the girl in the photographs and the old woman before me, but I still struggle to acknowledge that they could be the same person. My mind wonders if it’s the fault of the photos or of the aging subject that they now look so different. The fault of one destined to be held in time, or the other destined to be pulled along with it.
Clark’s feet pace along the wall as he inspects the pictures that hang along it. He stops at each framed photograph, bringing his eyes inches before the glass, peering intently at the scenes that play out before him. A teacup heavily dosed with cream and sugar is set before me. “Thank you,” I say shyly, the fine porcelain teacup oversized and out of place in the small hands of a child.
“What about you, Clark, one sugar cube or two?” Mrs. Garettson calls to the ten-year-old hovering around the edges of her living room.
“Can I have this photo?” Clark asks, not turning from the wall on which it hangs. My gaze darts over my shoulder to where he stands in front of a large framed photograph. So plays the light in the room that in the framed glass before my brother I see his reflection more than the photo behind the glass. I look to the woman next to me, as a startled expression flashes across a face that seems unable to comprehend what was just asked of her.
“That photo?” she struggles with the disconnect between it and the half-started cup of tea before her.
“I like it,” explains Clark.
“Well, that’s my photo, Dear,” she offers up apologetically. “Why, I think that one is Tom and I at Coney Island.” She strains to decipher the photo’s details after years of letting it become part of the mundane. “Must have been that summer in fifty-three, I’d say.” There’s a pause with all three of us staring into the black and white print. The captured image so telling, our minds move surely between its precise detail and the hazy moments that must have encompassed this singular one in time. The photo draws us in with its story.
On the wooden rail of a boardwalk sit two teenagers. Teenagers, sure as invincible youth, so long as the photo exits. They laugh, the grey ocean visible a short way behind them. A flock of seagulls mid- take-off on the sand. The roar of the surf and the wail of the seagulls rise from the background. The bite of saltwater heavy in the air that fills his lungs, he looks at her mid-laugh. His smiling eyes gazing from thick-framed glasses. A breeze tangles in their hair, drawing it out in wisps around their faces. The young woman leans forward, her lips parted slightly, speaking some teasing remark to the photographer.
“I like it,” affirms Clark.
A faint smile draws across Mrs. Garettson’s face. “I do, too.”
At the time I didn’t question why Clark wanted the photograph. It had always been one of those unspoken agreements of our relationship that I have wild, unwavering faith in everything he decided. There would be no asking for justification, no prying into motives, and—as he would have had it—only loyalty to his undisclosed causes.
But this changes on a dark December night six years later. Leaning against his door frame, I knock lightly on the open bedroom door. His gaze flickers up to the eleven-year-old sister in his doorway before dropping back down to the cardboard box in his hands. I take his lack of protest as an invitation. Sitting on his bed, Clark struggles with packing tape for a box in the dull light from the writing lamp on his desk.
I silently cross the room and sit in his desk chair. Something draws my attention to what’s on the wall above his desk. I hadn’t noticed them before, their tones mingling with the dark of the room. Taped to the wall, an old photograph, another, another. There’s an arresting quality rising from the mass of black and white images. The photos form a restless crowd, the unfamiliar faces gathered in throngs, stolen from their lives, to be collected here. The scenes flash in rapid succession as my eyes strain, following the images farther and farther into the darkness.
A broad-shouldered and wide-smiling hunting party. A boy lying with a dog in the grass. Dancers casually caught between scenes. Two girls floating chest deep in the ocean. A man grinning from a city sidewalk. Two lovers adrift in a canoe. The stern faces of newly- weds. A quiet man with a biplane. Someone out of focus. Another just out of frame. A cricket team. Brothers. A soldier. A knowing face.
My heart quickens as my eyes race from grey image to grey image, as I search for any connections between the unrelated shots. I’ve held the belief that photos hold too much of who people are, too much of their lives. And now my brother has them. Clark has all of these people’s lives. I lean back in the chair and gaze into the overwhelming collection of histories my bother has compiled on the walls surrounding his desk. “What are these?” I ask quietly, trying to comprehend the sheer number of photographs in the dark. Clark leans on his desk, bringing his face close to the wall, as if the images are as novel to him as they are to me.
“People,” he at last concludes with clarity. Knowing Clark, he means more than what he’s saying. He stands back to look at them in full, impressed himself at the accumulation. He runs a hand through his disheveled hair and takes a shy breath. “Well, parts of people. Moments of people, mostly. Stories, I guess.”
With anxiety rising in me due to the sheer number of photographic eyes now trained on us, I find his calm composure distressing. “Why do you have them all taped up here?” I question. Clark shifts slightly, narrowing his gaze, trying to decipher them all, photo by photo in the dark. He pauses as he tries to find solid ground between the photos that all attempt to pull him away to distant grey places.
“I collect them. Because they’re so permanent. I like that the photos can exist even after the people in them are…” he starts, justifying it more to himself than to me. But Clark is quick to recognize the confusion of the eleven-year-old watching him from his desk chair. My silent blue eyes are enough to persuade him into simpler terms, “I mean, these photos are proof that these people existed, and… Well, they’re real people, you know.” He declares this obvious truth that might have otherwise slipped away unquestioned, as if it’s the most natural grounds for hoarding unfamiliar images. He turns, drawn back to the collection of grey photos.
I struggle to keep him from being again snared away from me. “Why have them at all?” I pry.
He looks at me with a suspicious gaze, conflicted about my sudden demand for answers to questions he’s most likely been avoiding. He turns from the desk back to the box he’s been sorting books into. “I like them” he explains quietly. “And it just doesn’t seem right to let them be forgotten like that. But if I can hold onto the photos…Onto the parts of the people in the photos…Try to keep them. To prove—”
As usual, words fail Clark. He means more than what he can manage to say. I let my eyes jump from one whole-hearted and short noticed shot to another. One pulls me in with a vague familiarity. The smell of sunshine and summer and lake water and all of them filtered in the weathered wood of a waterfront cabin. In the black- and-white print, two teenagers sit on the wooden rail of a boardwalk…
The face of the young woman in the picture anchors me back to a cabin, to an old woman’s reluctance to let go of a photo that holds too much of herself. I immediately wonder how Clark came to possess this photograph that I recognize from the walls of Mrs. Garettson’s cabin. Of all of the suspicions I have gathered over the years regarding my brother, art theft defies the fundamental faith I have in Clark. I look between him and the picture. “This one is the Garettsons,” I say.
He turns his gaze directly up to where it hangs on the wall; this photograph, a treasure among his collection. He studies it a moment. “Yeah, Mrs. Garettson gave it to me after Tom died. She said she wanted someone to know who the people in the picture were. I guess she was afraid that after she was gone, no one would care.”
“Doesn’t that seem wrong to you? To have these pictures? To have part of someone’s life like that?” I demand of him, trying unsuccessfully to keep my voice from rising. A perplexed look takes hold of his face. His brown eyes fix on me in the same way they had fixed on the grey images above his desk.
“No. I don’t think that it’s wrong to keep these things. I think it would be wrong to have the chance to look into someone’s life and then not to take that chance. I think these stories matter, even if we don’t understand them, or we think they aren’t ours to understand. They matter.”
Ali wrote her essay, “The Keeper,” in a First-Year Interest Group (FIG) section whose theme was “Art in Totalitarian Europe.” The prompt for this essay was broad, inviting students to reflect on an encounter with art. Each time I read Ali’s work, I’m struck by her ability to convey information about her characters’ perspectives through her use of descriptive detail. We learn the most about the narrator and about her brother’s personalities in small exchanges, such as when Clark fidgets during conversation or when the speaker watches Clark move around a room “partly out of loyalty, but mostly out of habit.” This is a strong example of a writer “showing” rather than “telling” her readers about the larger questions at play in her narrative. Details like these invite readers to reflect on the nature of photography and about sibling relationships, but Ali doesn’t tell us exactly what she believes is happening in each scene. As a result, we have much more space to think about what the story’s central photographs mean for each character on our own.
What stands out to me the most about Ali’s writing process was how open she was to experimentation. She tested new strategies for drawing the reader into the scene in each section of her essay, something we can see in the way that she uses a rapid list of smells in the same sentence to convey the feeling of being bombarded with many different sensations at once.
Ali also recognized that the qualities that make strong initial drafts are different from the qualities that make strong final drafts. As she began to connect her two central scenes to one another, she identified numerous questions that she could use her story to ask, but she also acknowledged that the limited scope of the assignment simply didn’t allow space for her to examine each of these underlying themes. While she recognized that others wouldn’t be able to pick up on all of the ideas that had emerged for her as she reflected on these encounters, Ali knew that putting many of them down on paper would help her to discover what her narrative could teach her about her own interests. During peer review workshops and conferences with me, Ali approached her drafts with the spirit of an archeologist, digging through each separate topic she identified to see which felt the most exciting for her to explore. I found this approach especially striking because many writers struggle with the feeling that they need to commit to a single central message or question before writing their first drafts. Instead of letting her earliest ideas govern her writing process, Ali treated her early work as a kind of exhilarating laboratory space. As we discussed her second draft, Ali noticed an unintended pattern in the language she had used to describe her characters’ outlooks on photography and decided to make this theme the focus of her later revision. Because she consciously approached each draft as an opportunity to learn more about her own narrative, Ali was able to produce a detailed, thought-provoking essay.
Photographs of people have always made me nervous; I could never quite form a disconnect between the physical object of the photograph and the person that was pictured. I felt that staring at photographs was as intrusive as staring at someone sitting next to you. Was it wrong then to look at photographs? To take photographs? To keep photographs? Approaching my narrative project for English 100, I used this personal experience as an anchor to build my narrative around. I worked to use an experience with a single photo, and my perception of this artwork, as it evolved over time, to examine the larger question of photography I was trying to answer. But before I could hope to answer such a global question, I first sought to build a foundation of the small specific details of the story. Here again I used personal experience and memories to make the narrative feel genuine. The setting and senses were pulled from my memories in Northern Wisconsin, and the characters carried continuous mannerisms and actions from their childhood into their early adulthood as the story changed around them. One aspect of the story that changed the most when I was editing the piece was the characters. I wanted the characters to carry the narrative question to the readers, and I wanted this question to feel like it had gravity.
A challenge I faced in writing this piece was finding a balance between elaborating abstract ideas and never straying too far from the underlying story. I resolved this through creating a reverse outline; I wrote a short sentence that described the function of each paragraph so I could look at the story at its bare bones. Through the reverse outline I was able to see the purpose of each paragraph and its relation to the other elements of the piece. Being able to express this abstract idea through persuasive narrative challenged me as I had to build characters and situations that brought this question to life and presented it as a significant matter. I wanted to set the narrative stakes of the story so that the photographs, and the questions that they came tangled with, mattered to the characters. Doing this, I hoped the question would matter to the readers. I hoped to challenge readers if a moral line could, or should, be drawn when looking into others’ lives through the things they own and the insights these hold. I wanted to experiment with this abstract thought through examining the relationships that people have to photographs. In some cases photographs are maintained on principle, other cases rely more on emotion, and in yet other cases images can have an effect on us that we ourselves may not completely understand. Again I used the characters as ways of showing that there could be tension when ideas about photographs do not completely align. For the narrator and her brother, there’s underlying tension as the narrator believes photos are intrusive, and Clark believes that photos are telling. As I revised from my first to final drafts I was able to hone this conflict of ideas by creating detailed descriptions of photographs and the emotions they elicited in their viewers. I especially took care to describe the differing and contrasting emotions that the same photographs had on the two main characters, one of discomfort the other of possession, which later manifested in a tension that put their relationship in a new context.
In addition to the tension between them, I wanted a bond between the characters. The loyalty Clark wants from his sister and the closeness that the narrator wants from her brother, bind them together in a way that they have to work together in trying to answer that global question. I wanted this exchange to feel genuine and vulnerable, each character asking questions of the other and prying in ways that exposed their true beliefs. I hope this essay prompts the audience to take greater notice of photographs and to search for the stories in the anonymous, examining the details of an event, a life, or a story which we have the chance to look into. I chose to conclude the essay with a quote from Clark that echoes the underlying themes of the narrative and justifies the existence of photos even if the larger questions surrounding them remain unanswered.
Student Writing Award: Narrative Essay