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Kathleen Clary Miller
old photographs montana

Kathleen Clary Miller has written 300+ columns and stories for periodicals both local and national, and has authored three books ( She lives in the woods of the Ninemile Valley, thirty miles west of Missoula.


          “Who’s this?” asked my twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Clary.  She, her year-younger sister, Kate, my sister, and my niece had each traveled from a different state in the nation to celebrate my sixtieth birthday.  Our party favors had arrived a few days earlier in a box my sister sent ahead filled with five pairs of matching flannel pajamas. 

It was raining outside, so at noon we were dressed in them, my girls and I snuggled in front of the fire ogling old photographs while the other two hunched over jigsaw puzzle pieces laid face up on the corner table.  They only interrupted their concentrated effort to take a look at any picture of particular interest we’d unearthed. 

               “That’s your grandmother,” I replied after looking over Clary’s shoulder at the black and white image of a knock-kneed and awkward pre-teenager dressed in a droopy white dress, her blunt haircut adorned with a crooked veil.  “It was her Confirmation.”  Small wonder her granddaughter could not recognize in the sour expression of the girl who stood akimbo and squinted into the camera that glamorous woman who all their life had smiled gaily while whisking around in crisp petticoats beneath Grace Kelly dresses, wearing high spike heels to plant potted daffodils.

            When I was growing up, my mother stored her uncategorized cache of family photographs in the deep bottom drawer of her mahogany bedside table.  There was well-intentioned talk of albums in which she would someday house them—annually, her New Year’s resolution.  But organization was not mama’s forte.  The surfaces of our house were paragons of tidiness, but if you opened her desk drawer, you risked the ability to close it. 

            Once a year or so my sister and I would sit Indian style for hours on the floor of our parent’s bedroom—sanctified ground with plushier carpet than even in the living room—to gingerly open the infamous drawer and randomly select black-and-white streaked and smeared Polaroids from the hopeless jumble of recorded memories.  As we grew, our trips to the stash revealed more recent poses.  “Welcome to Yosemite” advertised the roadside sign that we’d reluctantly flanked, wearing the matching red, white, and blue outfits my mother had purchased for the road trip.  Like Dorothy skipping into the poppy field after days in the dreary forest, suddenly we were in color!

            At some point during my college years, being the “Type A” daughter I stepped in, dumped the drawer on its side, piled the passage of time into stacks, and tidily inserted them into leather bound books merchandised at our local stationery store.  By this time, my own penchant for snapshots that well might now be diagnosed as Instamatic Mania required I become a steady customer of the establishment, and my father build more bookshelves for the upstairs attic. 

            After my mother died and the family home had to be sold, I thought twice about hauling dozens of bulky photo albums to my own home with inadequate storage space.  On an especially emotional afternoon between the signing of real estate documents and close of escrow I peeled carefully arranged pictures off their sticky backgrounds and slipped them from their plastic sleeves —to drop them untitled and willy nilly into cardboard boxes with lids that could stack neatly in any closet corner.  Whenever we got around to looking at them, I thought, we’d pick them one by one and out of any order—each curled-edge square a time-machine surprise.

            “What in the heck were you doing here, Mom?”  Clary burst out laughing and pointed to the tissue paper flower arrangement the size of a beach ball tethered to my noggin and atop my body clothed in nothing but skin-tight green leotard and tights—at an age where my tummy still protruded and my braces glinted in the sun.

            “My mother’s idea of the perfect Halloween costume—I’m a flower!”  I said as I rolled my eyes.  It’s vital that a mother save such incriminating evidence of her own “bad phase” so that her own children are comforted by images of theirs that they consider she cruelly captured on film.  Not to mention that by comparison, their memory of my having permitted them any costume of their choosing proved considerable parental benevolence on my part.

            “Look at this one, Mom!” Kate exclaimed while producing the one of me sitting at her third birthday party, my hair in a long, blonde, French braid, “You’re so young!”  I knew that was coming. 

            Despite experiencing childhood in different eras, my daughters couldn’t help but notice the resemblance to my sister and me—color-coordinated outfits, poses on a bench in the front yard, sitting side by side wearing red coats and holly berry wreaths in front of the decorated Christmas tree. 

            It’s a senior thing to say, but nowadays pictures abound in staggering numbers.  They are flopped by the hundreds into folders on computer laptops, accessible at the click of a mouse—no spatial storage necessary.  I must admit the bright screen enables enhanced, colorful and dramatic viewing.

            “Still,” Clary mused when she passed to me a frozen moment in time showing her as an infant so I could please explain whatever had possessed me to put her in that baggy dress, “there’s something about reaching into a box, picking out a picture, and then fingering it in your hands.”  Indeed.

            Hours later, after tripping through time and generations, we set the first box aside and left the second one for tomorrow.  Meanwhile, the five of us gathered together in our pajamas, operated the automatic timer on my digital camera and saved the moment after discarding, right there on the spot any frames that didn’t suit our fancy.  I immediately connected a power cord from camera to laptop and e-mailed our top five selections to each of them.  They dragged them into a folder marked “Reunion,” or some other such title for the precious and fleeting time we would spend together.

            The morning I ferried them all to the airport to fly to their respective homes, once again my throat thickened and my heart ached with the loss.  I drove to Kinko’s and transferred the digital images until they slid from the machine through its slot, metamorphosed into glossy photographs that I promptly mailed to each of their addresses.  But before I stamped the envelopes, I jotted a quick note.

            To begin your own cardboard box.



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