When my mother passed away last summer at age 89, it took a while for my sister Amy and me to deal with her possessions. There was no real rush; she and Amy shared a house, it was paid off, and Amy still lives there. But one of the things I was most interested in was the collection of the family’s slides.
My parents died 52 years apart, my father having passed away in 1968 of metathesized thyroid cancer. There were several operations, even an early treatment with radioactive iodine. It was the kind of thing they could cure now, but as I understand it, my parents were told in 1965 that he had about three years, and that turned out to be about right.
Nonetheless, my sister and I had a wonderful textbook middle-class upbringing in Old Bethpage Long Island. My father was an electrical engineer at an aerospace company, not Grumman but one of the smaller firms who supplied Grumman with electronics for the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) it was building for the Apollo program. My mother had not yet blossomed into the queen of wisdom and kindness she eventually became; she was a 1960s Long Island wife and mother, and enjoyed both roles.
It's such a cliché to say your parent died young and you’ve spent your life chasing him or her in some way, but there’s some truth to it. I was ten when he passed, so I certainly remember him, and can sometimes even still hear the sound of his voice in my head, but I can’t say I knew him terribly well. By all accounts, he was a really nice, sharp, interesting, funny guy with a somewhat Zen-like way of looking at the world, at least according to my mother. They did an incredible job of maintaining the appearance of normality during the highly abnormal situation of his illness, but there’s not much question that, particularly in the later years, I felt there was a distance, a separation, with my dad. My mother left a big trail in terms of writing, which is natural considering her extra 52 years, but in going through the things she saved, Amy and I didn’t find a single thing my father had written. I guess this isn’t surprising, but I really kind of craved finding something that had his voice.
So all there is left are the photos. And thus, my interest in the slides.
My father was always the one with the camera. It was a Minolta. I don’t recall an armada of lenses, but he was a serviceably good photographer. And he always shot with slide film. I vividly recall watching the slides afterward. The screen set up in the living room. The smell of the heat from the bulb. The ger-CHUNK-gsh-WHACK of the feed and pull-back of the loading tray of the projector. All that big color on the screen, with images nearly an order of magnitude larger than the television. It was an event for the senses.
In 1966, after my father had been diagnosed and had recovered from a round of surgery, he took a leave of absence from his job and the family took a big western road trip vacation. We flew into Denver, rented a car, and saw Bryce Canyon, The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and other sites. I still remember much of it. Of course I didn’t understand the poignancy of this memory-building at the time, but we watched the slides many times, both before and after his passing.
The other thing driving me toward the slides was the question of the existence of a family portrait, even an informal one. About ten years ago, my mother wrote a book for Amy and me. She titled it “Your Father and Me, and You and You (by me).” It was hand-built, with text and photos pasted onto the pages, and contained a detailed and bittersweet recitation of their individual histories, how they’d met, their marriage and relationship, and his passing. I’d never seen many of the pictures in it before. I didn’t think to ask my mother at the time where the photos came from, but I assumed that they were prints of scanned slides, as I didn’t think there really were many other family photos except slides. In one of the photos, my sister and I are probably two and three years old, and we’re standing with my parents at the foot of the driveway of the house in Old Bethpage, placated with lollipops. Over time, it occurred to me that this sixty-year-old picture was the only photo I’d ever seen of the four of us together, which seemed too incredible to even be possible. Plus, it's not a great photo. It’s nothing I’d consider to be a portrait, even an informal one. It’s way too pulled back, and only my dad is looking at the camera. If it wasn’t the only photo of the four of us I was aware of, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. It’s not that I needed reassurance that, with all that pain, we really were a happy family. It was more an odd factoid whose truth I questioned. There really had to be another better family photograph.
|The only photo I’d seen of all four of us prior to the slide scanning project (1960)|
All of this is ironic, because years back, when our own kids were young, Maire Anne wanted a formal portrait of our family. She mentioned it to my mother, who bought me a gift certificate to get one shot by a local photographer whose work she thought I’d like. I never had it done. Worse, I think I actively scoffed at the idea. In my defense, I was wicked busy in those years at my engineering job, and the idea of any kind of formal portrait struck me as stuffy artificial. To satisfy Maire Anne, I twisted our neighbor Kimberly’s arm and got her to meet us in the park behind our house. I told everyone in the family “wear something white.” Kim shot some black and white pics. They’re great. I can’t say they’re the only pics of the five of us together—I’m sure they’re not—but they’re the only ones that comprise anything resembling a portrait. The people we love are precious to us, and photos of them with a certain expression or vibe are treasured. All the family, together, with great expressions, a collective vibe, and well shot, be it by amateur or pro, by framing or by happenstance? Why wouldn’t you love a photo like that? Maire Anne, of course, was right: Such a thing is precious.
|Our defacto family portrait.|
In going through my mother’s things, Amy and I found the trove of family slides. I was thrilled. My vague recollection was that, when we’d watched the slides from the big western road trip decades back, we disgorged them, 24 or 36 at a time, from their individual little cardboard slide containers into the feed of the projector, then repacked that little box and opened up the next one, so I assumed that what I’d find was shoeboxes filled with these little boxes. Instead, there were four boxes—one dedicated metal slide case, two metal boxes with labeled dividers, and one traditional shoebox with cardboard boxes of slides inside.
The metal slide case was remarkable. It had slots that each held pairs of two slides, and on the underside of the lid was a piece of oaktag that contained individual notes on many of the slides. It clearly was purpose-built for this application. I could see, reading the notes, most of which were clearly in my father’s handwriting, that it dated back to when he was in Okinawa in 1952, continued through to Amy’s birth in 1957, and stopped shortly before I was born in 1958. I had no recollection of ever seeing it. In addition to the images it contains, this is a precious family artifact.
|The insanely well-documented slide case.|
|One of the two well-documented "cookie boxes."|
Lastly, there was one shoebox containing traditional little fresh-from-the-developer individual cardboard slide boxes. Most of these held much later slides—late ‘70s and early ‘80s—and some of them were labeled, but a quick hold-up-to-the-light revealed that one of the unlabeled boxes appeared to hold the slides of the family that my mother had scanned and used in the book she’d written for Amy and me. Jackpot.
I talked with Amy about us digging out the projector and the screen—both of which we still actually have—and having a slide show with our (now adult) children, but due to the both the pandemic and people’s schedules, it made more sense to have the slides scanned.
I’d originally assumed that I’d send all of the slides to a scanning service, but seeing the use of paper tabs to document the slides in the three metal boxes, the idea of someone removing them to scan them, possibly not putting them back in the same place, and losing the meta data seemed risky, so I resolved to scan them myself. I looked into buying a slide scanner, quickly learned that the Canon CanoScan 9000F has an extremely good reputation, found one on Craigslist 20 miles from me for eighty bucks complete in the original box and used for one family photo project just like mine, and drove right over and bought it.
|The Canon CanoScan 9000F with four slides in the template.|
The scanner was not what I expected. I had this image of an automated slide-specific scanner, something like a slide projector into which you load a few dozen slides at a time and it ger-CHUNK-gsh-WHACKs its way through them like a projector does. Instead, what it is is a high-quality flatbed scanner that comes with a plastic template that you place on the glass scanning bed. The template holds four manually-placed slides at a time. The scanner gives you a quick low-res preview of all four, then scans them individually at up to 4800 dpi, though it’s really slow at that resolution; 1200 dpi is much faster and adequate for most applications. Once you get in the rhythm, you can clock through a stack of slides pretty efficiently, maybe 30 seconds each in total, but add in organizing the slides into folders, and correcting them for over/underexposure (I don’t have Photoshop, but the scanner came with some pretty effective software), and it’s slow going. I was vexed by the fact that, no matter how well I cleaned the glass on the scanner, dust and hair kept showing up in the images. I eventually realized it was on the slides themselves, and just let it be part of the visual patina. If I ever need to get a publication-quality image, I’ll clean the slide and increase the scan resolution.
I first scanned the stand-alone little cardboard box of “hallowed slides” my mother had used in the book, and was surprised that it did not contain the slide of the four of us standing at the bottom of the driveway. I then bungie-jumped in, thumbed through the boxes, found the “45 1967 Maine vacation” slide group, and scanned it, as Maine was the subject of my song “The Kittery Bridge,” and I was thrilled to see photos of my aunt Flo and uncle Bernie’s little house in Bridgton and the dock that literally had a barber pole on the end (he was in the barber supply business). But after that, I started at the beginning, and methodically went through the first metal slide case.
It was astonishing. Early photos of my dad when he was stationed in Okinawa. Pre-wedding photos of my parents, looking so young and relaxed. My mother and father in a rowboat, with his tongue-in-cheek hand-written notes “Kenneth and his chest” and “Bim laying sexually.” It’s just my mother in a bathing suit, but these two comments would be as close as I'd get to finding something my dad had written in which I could hear his voice. A trip to DC. Then, oh my god, photos taken on their ski trip honeymoon (funny, since neither of them skied, nudge nudge). Trips to the beach. Visits with my father’s parents in Brooklyn. The first photos of Amy. Photos of my dad with a big goofy smile on his face instead of the more reserved expression he’s photographed with later in life. All in beautiful saturated Kodachrome slide color. My sister and I were stunned. We had never seen any of them.
|Kenneth Siegel in Okinawa, 1952. No idea who took the picture. |
|Bim Siegel rowing in the Berkshires, 1955.|
|The not-yet-married couple in DC, 1955.|
|My dad looking in credibly relaxed before Amy was born, 1956.|
It wasn’t only the great photos that were compelling. Some were so underexposed that you had no idea what you were looking at. As I said, I don’t have Photoshop, but playing with the histogram equalization in the scanner software brought some of them back into the light. This one turned to be my mother, wearing a nice dress, laying on the bed of what must be a hotel room. For a nice Jewish couple in the 1950s, this was probably perilously close to shooting porn.
|Ooooh la la, right?|
In scanning the photos, though, it was soon apparent that they were out of order, jumping around a good bit. I made a brief attempt at trying to correlate them with their descriptions on the underside of the lid, and also to re-home some of the slides my mother had pulled to make the book (I assumed that her going through them to find slides for the book was probably the source of their getting out of order), but it was very time-consuming, and I had three other boxes to go through, so I gave up.
As I started scanning the second box, which began approximately with my birth, I was hoping to find a better photo of the four of us, or at least find the original slide from which that only existing photo was taken. I found so much more.
Of course, once Amy and I were born, the photos our parents took were mostly of us. And, of course, now, I wanted to see photos of them. However, scanning the photos in order, it was oddly compelling to watch Amy and me grow up in a sort of a time lapse.
Now, I’ve spent much of my life distancing myself from Long Island. It’s not that I hated it or felt like it was just filled with bad memories or anything, but we moved up to Amherst in 1969, the year after my dad passed, and I instantly loved Amherst. I came to increasingly regard it as where I was from. It was natural that, 50 years later, with no family on Long Island, I’d lose ties with it. But the combination of my mother being buried there last year next to my dad, and seeing all these photos of the little house at 15 Adrienne Drive Old Bethpage NY 11804, was highly effective in reminding me where my roots really are.
There were photos of the house my parents paid $19,500 for in 1958 being built, transforming in eight slides from a bulldozed lot to a framed structure to a complete unit. There were goof-around photos inside and around the house. There were many photos with my always elegantly-attired grandparents, who were just over in Brooklyn. There was a photo of my father’s entire family, their names and my connections to them now gone (he was an only child, but in one of my conversations with my mother in her final month, she enumerated all of my grandparents’ siblings and their children, but I was so in the moment with her that I didn’t write any of it down). There were birthday parties with neighborhood kids I instantly recognized. There were vacations on Montauk, on Cape Cod, on Sandy Island, in Maine. There was evidence of a few hilarious lapses in attention from my wonderful parents. I’d scan the photo groups, put them in a folder named with the always-informative notation on the blue cardboard divider transcribed exactly, then upload it to Google Photos and share it with Amy, and we’d swap OMG emails and texts over them. It was time-consuming but enormously satisfying, even addictive. Neither Amy nor I wanted it to end.
Old Bethpage house under construction, 1958
|Who wouldn't love to find the first photo of them and their mother smiling at each other? 1958. |
|My dad, the fierce mower, 1964.|
|One of many photos of Amy and me with our loving elegant grandparents, 1965.|
But end it soon did. The third box began in 1965, but I could see that it was about half full of much later slides. I was delighted when I found the hundred-ish 1966 photos of our big western road trip, by far the largest single slide group. It’s unclear to me whether these 2nd and 3rd boxes—the “cookie tins” with dividers—had been started by my father and then added to and maintained by my mother, or whether she had emptied all of the little cardboard boxes into them—but the “CAL” (California) slides, as they were labeled, were in disarray. They had the original stamped slide numbers on them, but they were from four or five separate rolls, so they couldn’t simply be ordered from these numbers. They also had what appeared to be penciled-in sequential slide numbers, but those didn’t always make sense. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get the order right, eventually putting all the numbers, images of the slides, and short descriptions in an Excel file so I could play with order there, and then manually putting the slides in an order that best fit both the numbers and my memory. The slides themselves weren’t as dramatic as I remembered, and most of the photos of vistas that three of us at a time are in are marred by poor framing and contrast issues, but the time spent on them was a labor of love.
|That's my mother, Amy, and me center foreground. That's obvious, right? (1966)|
|Dad, Amy and me in front of a sequoia in Yosemite, 1966. At least we’re facing the right way.|
After the big western road trip, the density of the slides dropped off dramatically, and it was hard looking at them without being palpably aware of my dad’s impending passing in July ’68. There was a slide group of trips my parents apparently took to the Bahamas and then to Virginia in spring 1967. I had no memory of them taking these trips, but thought good for them for getting away alone.
Then I found a very short slide group labeled “spring 1968 Florida trip.” The first slide shows Amy and me under a sign saying “Parrot Jungle Miami Florida” with parrots placed on our arms and shoulders. I vaguely recall both the event and the photo. The next six pics are of other animals. But more to the point, what the hell were we doing in Florida just months before my father passed away? My grandparents had started spending winters there. Were all four of us visiting them? Or were they up in NY staying with my dad while my mother, Amy, and I took a vacation? It didn’t make any sense. This was one of any number of things where Amy and I messaged each other saying rhetorically "Ma would know," but it was the biggest.
It was the last photo in this group, a photo of my mother, Amy, and me, that unexpectedly blew me away. I don’t know who took it. My mother is wearing a winter coat I remember well. It’s brown with a beaver collar and cuffs. I remember loving the way the fur felt, and in the pic, my fingers are dug into one of the cuffs. I remember her saying that it was her present to herself because during the last years of my dad’s life there wasn’t a lot of money. She no longer looks like the young woman in the earlier photographs. She looks like the mother I knew for the rest of my life—kind, yes, wise, yes, but at this time, fierce, focused, and decisive. And the three of us have a certain weariness on our faces, as if we all know what’s coming (my mother certainly did).
|This 1968 photo breaks my heart, but it's totally us.|
And then I realized. Like it or not, it’s this photo, this pic of my mother, my sister, and me, that’s the definitive Siegel family portrait. It wasn't what I was looking for, and it certainly wasn't what I wanted, but there's no denying it. It made me so sad, both because I knew there wouldn’t be any more fresh photos of those early years, and because I knew what came just months after this, that I nearly cried. But if my father is the one standing out of the frame holding the camera (and the more I think about it, the more that makes sense, as I cannot imagine my mother leaving him), what could be a more perfect metaphor for him fading out of the picture?
When the man who usually held the camera was gone, so was the source of most of the photographs. Although we had another eight years as a family of three before both Amy and I were both off at college, there are only a few dozen slides of those years, they’re scattershot and generally of poor quality, and only one of them shows the three of us.
Fast-forward 42 years. On my mother’s 80th birthday ten years ago, Amy and I took her to New York to see a show. Before we drove home, we stopped at my father’s and grandparents’ old apartment building at 2201 Troy Ave, Brooklyn, corner of Troy and Flatbush. I had a small non-phone camera with me. I asked a stranger to take our photo with it, and something went wrong. It wouldn’t snap a picture, and we couldn’t figure out why. We were disappointed that we couldn’t get the family portrait our grandparents would’ve been so pleased that we took. When I got home, I realized that the camera had been set to video, and what it recorded was us trying to pose and then talk with the guy about why it wasn’t working. It was adorable. I pulled a still photo from the video, had a couple of hardcopies printed, and late in life it became our quasi-official family portrait.
|The family in front of my father’s and grandparents’ old apartment in Brooklyn in 2010.|
So, after scanning 1,034 slides, I did not find what I was looking for. Not only hadn’t I found another photo of the four of us together, I didn’t even find the original slide of the hardcopy of the only existing one of us at the end of the driveway. But at the risk of sounding after school special, I found so much more. And I learned something. Unless your family is in front of it, no one wants to see another photo of the Empire State Building. But all those people snapping selfies in front of spectacular places like The Grand Canyon and Half Dome? They’ve actually got the right idea. Whether you’re going through your parents’ pics, or your kids are going through yours, we want to see the same thing. We want to see the smiling faces of the people we love. Because that's downright precious.
And if you find one with all of you in it, all looking at the camera with joy in your eyes, maybe you frame it and put it on your nightstand. Maybe you just like knowing that it exists. But treasure it, because, as I learned, even in a happy family and a thousand slides, its existence is far from guaranteed.