I have a few possessions that belonged to my parents. Items that hold special memories for me are displayed in my home. My mom’s glass bell collection and my dad’s acoustic guitar are all in my living room. People that come to our home sometimes notice them, and I like to mention that they belonged to my parents. There is one item that I don’t display, it’s too precious and for me acts as a pathway to the past. A touchstone that when I concentrate can take me to a time when my parents were alive. My Dad’s camera, a 1978 Mamiya NC-1000 35 MM camera, for me is a talisman of my parents, and my history.
My Mom died from brain cancer when I was sixteen years old. My Dad died, unexpectedly, when I was thirty-five. The loss of my parents are the two experiences that have had the biggest impact on who I am. They were both good, honest and loving human beings that lived their lives with grace and courage. I know that I was lucky to have had the parents I did, even for the short time that they were here on Earth. But somedays are harder than others, and somedays I need to go to a place in my mind where they are with me.
My parents were not wealthy. They both worked blue collar jobs. Dad drove a local delivery truck and mom was a custodian at the local middle school. Our house was small, but owned and not rented. We were very fortunate that each of them earned a fair wage and benefits. But working class would be the best description of our economic situation. Anything extra that my brother and I had or got to do, came to us by our parents sacrificing. They didn’t buy themselves new stylish clothes, but I had plenty. They both had old bicycles, while my brother and I had nice Schwinns.
I remember my parents talking about buying a good camera. Pictures were important to both. Mom would add them all to albums, recording the dates on the back. I have those albums and they are precious to me. I remember all of us stopping at garage sales and flea markets, looking for a good deal on a used camera. When my folks weren’t successful at finding one, they decided to invest in a new camera. Dad was the one who did all the research into what to buy and how much it would cost. Mom loved the output of a camera but didn’t enjoy taking the pictures.
The only way he could afford it was to put it on lay-away and pay every two weeks, on his paydays. My Dad would drive up to the store and I would hop out and go in and make the payment, bringing the updated receipt back to him. He completed the purchase in time for my seventh birthday, in May of 1979. I still have the pictures he took of me on my brand new yellow Schwinn, complete with bell and basket.
The camera is small, black and silver, all manual. Even now, nearly forty years old, it is still a beautiful piece of craftmanship. It still has the original leather case and strap. Dad would oil the leather at regular intervals. Now the leather is showing some wear, but still smells of leather shoe polish. The battery, that my Dad removed after each use, is stored in a film tube that he mounted to the camera strap with two notched holes in each side. Underneath the lens cap is the exposure limit of the last film he loaded, so he would never forget how many shots he had available. The film was usually Fuji brand, which became his favorite brand. He would clip coupons and stockpile film. He never wanted to be without a roll.
Like mom I love pictures and like dad I love taking pictures. Even though I begged to hold it from the time he bought the camera I wasn’t allowed to learn to use his camera until I was eight. I remember the hours of time that I would spend watching and listening as he explained the new things he was learning. Details about aperture and focal length. It was hard to learn, I was young. But the process of capturing a moment in time was and still is fascinating to me. I supplemented his lessons by reading library books and looking at picture books at the thrift store. He allowed me to use the camera with his permission, if I always had the strap around my neck, and never rode my bike while using it. Those were very minor requests and I can remember how proud I was of myself. I would plan and ponder on what to photograph and wait for the light to be just right. After the rolls would get developed my dad and I would sit and review the snaps. Dad was constructive with any criticism and we would both proudly show mom.
My dad continued to use the camera until his death in 2008. After my Dad’s death, his camera came to me. It lives on a shelf in our spare bedroom. That’s where I visit it. I don’t display it to people. It’s too special to me to allow others to touch it. When I hold the camera, I can feel the same pride I felt as an eight-year-old. As I open the leather case I can hear his voice talking me through the steps. I can feel his calloused and warm hands on the back of my neck, guiding me to look at a specific angle. The smell of the leather from the bottom case is strong when I raise the camera to focus. The click of the shutter is strong and clear. Much crisper in sound than my DSLR Canon.
Currently I use a digital SLR 35 mm camera. To me it was the natural progression of my photography love. That love of photography was given to me by my dad. It was nurtured during hours of walking around outside, looking at shadows thrown by fences and trees. Shortly after dad’s death I would go to the same park, walking and snapping, trying to come to grips with being without both.
When I’m holding his camera, I can believe for a moment that my parents are alive. They are at work, or maybe in the next room. I can smell the green disinfectant my mom uses on the counters and the special way she says “Frank” when calling my Dad. The loveseat has clean laundry folded on it, waiting for each of us to put it away. There is a pressure cooker on the stove steaming artichokes. I’m safe and loved. I’m the baby of the family, the little girl. If I stay in the quiet long enough I can start to smell my mom, the Paul Mitchell Awapuii shampoo that lingers on her hair. As soon as I’m interrupted or my mind wanders back to the now, it’s gone. I am not a little girl anymore; my parents are gone and I feel the cold harsh pain that is being an orphan.