Our family holiday cards were picture-perfect. So were the family albums and the framed photos on display throughout the house. I spent weeks and weeks arranging those pictures of babies cooing, toddlers learning to walk, daughters in pretty party dresses blowing out birthday candles, and a son in his first tux decked out for the prom. There was page after page of happy times, of smiling kids and grandparents, of cousins and friends together. It was our history, and we took those albums out and would sit together on the sofa and laugh at everybody's braces and baby fat and big hair.
Now the man in the middle of many of the photos, my ex-husband, is out of the picture. I wasn't sure what to do with all the images from our past life after we split up. Most people take the pictures down off the wall and put the albums away. Who wants to look at the family that was? After our divorce, I gathered up the photos of our married life and packed them away in boxes in the attic, lots of boxes filled with more than 25 years' worth of memories captured on film. What to do with them all? What stays? What goes? I was the keeper of the archives, and I'd deal with these questions later.
Last month, I was ready to think about the photos. I went to see Hagop Iknaian. He owns Hagop's Art Studio in Cambridge and he framed most of our family photographs. In business for 40 years, he has met many people in my shoes. Hagop, 63, is a man of few words, and he speaks with a thick Armenian accent. "You have only three choices," he told me. "Destroy. Cut. Or replace. That's it."
I have a friend who took the first tack. She'd been through an acrimonious divorce that had cost her a great deal emotionally and financially. On the night she discovered that her ex had remarried, she sat alone in front of the fireplace and over a bottle of red wine threw her wedding pictures into the fire one by one. That may have been therapeutic for her, but picture burning, which I tried once after a breakup in college, has never been healing for me.
Elsa, a distant relative, simply cut people out of the picture. When her daughter divorced 30 years ago from a philandering husband, Elsa took her scissors and hole punch and removed the head of her former son-in-law from all of the photo albums. (She kept his body intact so as not to ruin the photos completely.) That solution wouldn't work for me either, since I'd hate to ruin the albums. Of course nowadays, with digital pictures and Photoshop, it would be easy as pie to cut out a cheater, and Elsa would have been all set. There's no gaping hole and you're back to picture-perfect in minutes. But is it a good idea to mess with history by erasing it? Probably not, although I have fantasized about Photoshopping my ex out of our wedding pictures and replacing him with Patrick Dempsey.
The truth is you can't just reframe your life in one fell swoop, no matter how hard you try. You can't hole punch someone from your memories or edit the past by throwing the pictures away. You have to let go of the old images, create new ones, and then put your life back together again, big picture and all. You have to come to terms with the past - and that takes time.
My friend Marsha has done it. Six years ago, she went through a painful divorce. For the first time since then, she's able to look at a photograph from an early chapter of her marriage and appreciate it. "My ex and I are grinning with the kids in front of a huge waterfall," she says. "I'm able to remember the magic of that day and smile."
Our family albums from the past are still in one piece - untouched - and they're my children's history now. I'll pass the albums on to them one day. As for the pictures on the wall, they've been replaced with new photos from the present and past. Baby one, baby two, baby three. Three little kids and a dog. Three grown kids and mom. The family we are today. Hagop did an excellent job.
Marianne Jacobbi lives in Cambridge. Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org.