It used to be a photographer’s worst nightmare, back before everyone carried a cell phone and every cell phone included a camera. That perfect, once-in-a-lifetime picture looms before you—and you’ve left your camera at home.
The first time this happened to me, I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. My parents had given me their old Brownie box camera (Anyone else remember these?), and I’d taken some pictures I’m proud of to this day. But this particular day my camera was sitting at home on a shelf.
The spring had been, not unlike most Illinois springs, rather erratic, with cold temperatures giving way to warm temperatures in early March, then reverting to cold temperatures and snow flurries later in the month. As I was walking home from school, I passed an ancient tree with gnarled roots radiating in all directions. The wind suddenly picked up and whirled a mix of snow and brown leaves out from between two of them to reveal, hidden among the remaining leaves and snow, a small clump of violets in bloom.
I could do nothing but try to remember it—like a snapshot in my memory.
Several years later, I was in a car with my parents, riding through the countryside between Flora and Olney in Southern Illinois, and there was the perfect sliver of a moon high in the sky long before sunset, like a fleck of gold floating in a turquoise eye—a snapshot in my memory.
Nearly grown, I was on horseback in the Fox River bottoms near Olney. It’s a wild area. Parts of it look like humankind has never walked there. But most of it is laced with trails like the one I rode this warm autumn day, and small pockets of crops are planted in open places to take advantage of the rich, loamy soil. I was riding past one of these when a red-winged blackbird glided down onto a full, golden head of wheat and balanced there, wings outstretched, for long seconds—a snapshot in my memory.
When I was a young mother living in the Kiamichi Mountains of Southeastern Oklahoma, I woke one night to find my bedroom glowing with silvery light. I rolled over and peeked out the window to find a full moon high in a sky covered with puffy clouds that looked like lily pads. They were reflecting the moon’s light so completely that the dirt road leading to our house looked like a stream of molten silver—a snapshot in my memory.
I was visiting my sister on the plains of Nebraska one summer when her husband called from the airbase to tell us to go to shelter because a severe storm was on the way. As we left her mobile home, I looked across the prairie to see a perfect anvil-shaped cloud preceding the storm front, grumbling thunder and dropping bolts of lightning as it approached—a snapshot in my memory.
My kids grew up in a little town south of Champaign, Illinois. I used to take evening walks past a small, picturesque grove. One evening, mist curled around the trunks of the trees and the air was filled with fireflies. Crouched in the mist, surrounded by fireflies, was a wild rabbit—still as death and poised to flee—a snapshot in my memory.
I’ve seen double and triple rainbows—even an upside-down rainbow once. I didn’t have my camera. I’ve seen sundogs and “the new moon hanging from a star,” and I didn’t have my camera. I’ve seen comets that swept the sky—one with a double tail—and I didn’t have my camera. I’ve seen brilliant sunsets, fiery dawns, bursts of lightning in pink and green that came down from the clouds and up from the earth and met in the middle—and I didn’t have my camera.
All just snapshots in my memory--until now. Now you have those snapshots, too.