A Project in Patience

December 15, 2022
5 people crouched around a mini snowman

Finding my holiday spirit, cropping family photos

The days tick by, my back aches, my eyes are bloodshot from staring at the screen. The website gets a glitch. I lose my unsaved changes. I miss the sales for Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the Extended Up to 50% Off Everything. I vow to quit.

I’ll join my crafty Czech neighbors gluing handmade decorations on evergreen boughs for festive front door wreaths. I’ll bake double-digit varieties of holiday sweets. I’ll sing in the choir or volunteer at my school’s Holiday Academy. I’ll do anything but spend another moment, alone, at the computer revisiting last year.

In anticipation of the winter holidays, some decorate their house, others bake. Some volunteer at soup kitchens, others shop Christmas markets. I make family photo albums.

For me, nothing says ‘Tis the Season more than sitting at my computer, sipping a coffee, and squeezing a year’s worth of family photos into 111 pages of a photo book. It’s a process for which I’ve sacrificed hours of sleep in the past decade. It’s time-consuming, solitary, and technologically challenging. My photo book is a self-inflicted, end-of-the-year tradition that I annually lament and take great pride in.

Gone are the days of slipping Kodak prints into plastic sleeves of hardcover albums to be poured over on Thanksgiving at Grandma’s. Now, social apps like IG, TikTok and FB share precious moments instantly, either with a close circle of friends or with thousands of followers. My Google Photos account sends frequent reminders of special memories, and my iCloud storage keeps 25,000 photos only a finger’s click away. Once my family’s photo book is completed, rarely, do I ever open it to look back.

But, in the month of November, I spend every free minute I have at my computer until the book I have created lands safely in my shopping cart. I wait for a last-minute sale, and then click buy. It sounds straightforward and easy. But, before I order the photo book, which is ostensibly for my husband to peruse while sipping his coffee when the rest of the family tears into gifts on Christmas morning, I must first survive the process of creation.

To start, I spend hours squinting at thumbnail-size, original quality photos on my hard drive, uploading the best ones onto a server like Shutterfly, Mixbook, or Snapfish. I time the uploads for early morning when sane people are sleeping, so that my uploads won’t fail due to excess site traffic. Then, I select from layouts that showcase 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5+ photos per page. The editing options overwhelm.

Sometimes, I get slowed down because we’ve got too many photos in January and none in March. Or I realize I didn’t take a single picture of my 15-year old’s birthday, but I have a whole folder of photos from the weekend my younger son turned 12.  No matter what I discover, I don’t let what’s missing derail my process. From the beginning, I am not out for perfection – I am here to revisit the story.

I see patterns – each summer we visit my family in the US; we go to the beach. Later, in my parents’ backyard, the cousins jump on the trampoline. They line up, 5 in a row – 4 boys, my daughter, the oldest and the only girl – holding hands as they bounce up and down, like Whack-A-Moles. One year, I take more than twenty shots of their twenty-second jump. One makes it into my book, another finds its way onto my mother’s Christmas card.

My photo book creation process takes weeks and is fraught with setbacks. Although a good dose of creativity is required, the most important qualification for this project is patience.

I don’t want credit, although over the years, our families have praised the photo books, calendars, and personalized magnets I slip under the tree for aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, and grandparents on both sides. I love watching the excitement in my husband’s eyes on Christmas morning when he turns a new page, moving back through the year we’re about to leave behind.

There are, of course, inevitable hurt feelings. I’ll never forget my mother-in-law’s disappointment when she flipped through our 2020 Photo Book during a summer visit and didn’t find a single picture of herself. Although I reminded her that we were in quarantine most of the year, seeing her sad was a good reminder to me to snap more pictures that weekend.

Even though I say the photo book is for my husband, the real gift, I believe, is mine. During those Advent weeks when I’m going through pictures from February, or Easter, or on a random rainy afternoon, I am forced to pause. In the middle of the pre-holiday stress of work parties, school functions, and to-do lists, I flip back through the previous 12 months of my family’s life and take a moment to remember how we got from there to here. Unlike in life, there is no back talk while making a photo book. I am alone. And (despite my laments), I am content.

With each passing year, I treasure this space for my creativity to flourish. Looking at the photos jogs my memories, awakens sensory glands. When I shuffle through the pictures, I get the sense of a life lived well. Of a family that enjoys spending time together – cooking, traveling, being outdoors. It’s an ordinary life with some extraordinary moments.

I remember a moment this past fall. We were hosting an impromptu outdoor neighborhood party, and due to rain, the neighbors gathered inside. Before I knew it, one neighbor picked up last year’s photo book. Soon, there was a group crowded around the couches in the living room, exclaiming and giggling. “There I am!” “Look at Niki, she was so small.” “Here’s Eddie!” “Where am I?”

I watched from the porch as my daughter pulled down our photo books from other years and showed our friends their place in our Czech lives. She pointed to one of the smallest children, “See, here we are together. You were just a baby, then.” As they thumbed through the albums, I hesitated to go inside. The photographer in me wanted to take a picture. But I didn’t want to disturb the connection.

There are many pre-holiday jobs my husband and I swap, or I pass off to my mother or father. Anyone could make this photo book. Anyone could, but no one ever does. My husband and daughter bake, my sons sell handmade crafts at their school fairs. I can’t sew, or quilt, but this task, this act of putting our year down for the record – this is my job.

*And, sometimes, it’s a win, just to get five people outdoors, looking in the same direction.

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  • Reply Cindy List December 16, 2022 at 4:30 pm

    Wonderful story, and I love the legacy of photo albums. Merry Christmas to you and your precious family. I enjoy keeping up with all of you through Facebook! ❤️

  • Reply Polly December 17, 2022 at 4:23 am

    I love this about you and the descriptions of doing this is wonderful! Even though I don’t do the photo albums as I once did I am grateful for Facebook showing me memories. Its probably why I post so much :). We also have millions of digital photos and I can’t help but review some of the iPhone memories as well. Happy Holidays!

  • Reply Marty Thorsen December 20, 2022 at 6:01 pm

    Emily, you are an amazing writer! You have the ability to make others feel the excitement and wonder of your life.

  • Reply Beth Gates March 14, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    Emily, I just read your story about the photo album. It was wonderful! What a gift you give to each of us – good memories of our times together and a glimpse into your lives when we are apart. Xoxo to my talented daughter!

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