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growing up

My Screensaver Is a Family Time Capsule and I’m Never Changing It

In my new, “new normal” life of working from home, socializing from home, and, well, pretty much always being home, I find myself on Zoom calls nearly every day. Lately, I’ve become the host of many work Zoom meetings where, by default, I end up sharing my screen.

On almost every call, the same thing happens: I hit the share screen button, and before I can open the document or image I intend to share, my screensaver appears for my fellow Zoomers to see. It’s a big, bright photo of my family — my husband, our two kids, and me.

Nearly every time, I am surprised when the people on the call remark — with what seems to be genuine enthusiasm — on the adorableness of my young family. “Such cute little kids,” they say.

But I cut them off mid-gush. “Oh, that picture is so old,” I say. “My kids are 17 and almost 15 now.”

Most of the time, they are surprised to hear this. “Time to update the picture,” someone says about my screen, through my screen.

I do the quick math in my head, I realize that the picture is 10 years old. Ten years? Ten years! How could that be?

The picture is a casual snapshot, taken by a nice stranger one early evening in late August, 2010 in the midst of our then annual week-long beach vacation on Long Beach Island. We are sitting on a bench outside of our favorite ice cream place in the tiny town on the tippy top of the long skinny seaside island we so loved. We still love the island. We just haven’t been there in I’m not exactly sure how long.

Our smiles in the photograph look so real, so natural — not forced at all as they do in so many other pictures we have of us. Looking at the photo, I want to magically go back in time and discern what each of us was thinking and feeling when that stranger with some serious light-catching skills captured that fleeting moment. You know how you see yourself in a certain time and place in your mind’s eye, even though you haven’t been there in ages? In my head, nearly every day, I picture myself and my family as we actually were in that picture.

Ten years ago, my daughter let me do her hair. It’s braided in two pigtails, complete with mismatched ponytail holders. She’s wearing a purple butterfly T-shirt that clashes with her too-large, hot pink and navy blue cardigan sweater. Her teeth were not yet fixed by braces and so her smile also seems mismatched — and also completely perfect.

My son’s hair is long by his present teenage standards. Freckles flood his 7-year old face. When did those freckles disappear? Perhaps when the patches of stubble showed up on his chin and the electric razor was purchased? He’s wearing a Philadelphia Phillies shirt, one of the countless ones that used to make up 90 percent of his summer wardrobe. Around his neck are pieces of rope — he used to sleep in those, telling me that MLB players did the same thing.

When this photo was taken, I could still refer to my husband as a redhead, and people knew what I was talking about. His sunglasses rest atop his head, despite the sun having already set that evening. I can now recognize this look as a sign of the perpetual, physically busy life of a parent of small children. We used to call those beach weeks “working vacations” — we’d pack up the pull cart for a day at the beach, only to have to turn around nearly immediately to retrieve some forgotten item. These were not lazy days at the beach — each day I’d ambitiously pack a novel but I never cracked my book’s spine. Instead, I’d spend the day throwing Frisbee with my son, endlessly digging in the sand with my daughter, and, of course, walking back and forth to the house for bathroom breaks and snack reinforcements.

I’m not wearing any makeup in the picture. Maybe it was because we were at the beach that day? Or maybe it was because I didn’t actually need makeup 10 years ago? (I wish I knew that back then!) My laugh lines look familiar to me now, but the rather smooth forehead does not. I still wear that hot pink sweater, as well as the green wrap bracelet and the stud earring that my grandmother gave me. I’m still nostalgic for all of these things. I recognize the giant summer canvas bag I used to call a pocketbook. It was  really an oversized tote filled with decks of cards, water bottles, coloring books, and snacks — endless snacks.

The 7-year-old boy in that picture is now over six feet tall. He fills his own giant Gatorade water bottle and takes it to basketball practice in a car that he drives all by himself. The little girl with the pigtail braids now wears her hair quite long. I can’t recall the last time I even brushed it. Her clothes are no longer mismatched, and these days, usually only in shades of gray and black.

The four of us don’t fit together in that jigsaw puzzle piece-like way that we did in that photograph. My son no longer fits in the crook of my arm; my daughter hasn’t sat on my husband’s lap in many years. Fortunately, we still fit together in other ways — a fleeting hug in the kitchen as I reach way up to my son before he heads out the door; in the bent over glance of my daughter’s laptop as I read an essay she wrote for school, one that I could have never imagined that little girl composing. These days, my husband has the time to remove the glasses from his head. I have the time to rub his shaved head, and so does my daughter. We always laugh when we do, and he laughs with us — or perhaps at us.

I have a slew of pictures on my computer that show us in our new forms. They more clearly represent the people and the family we have become. I’m not sure why I don’t replace my long standing screen shot with one of those. Maybe I’m a sucker for nostalgia; there is something about that moment, when I open up my own laptop each and every morning, coffee in hand, sometimes makeup on, sometimes not. Sometimes with kids asleep upstairs, sometimes with them already out the door and husband in the home office down the hall. I see that family on my screen. This was us. And in some ways — for me, at least — this is us. It will always be us.

Header image via Rachel Levy Lesser/sweetym/Getty Images

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