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Alice Cavanagh on Old Photographs

I love old photographs.


That's hardly a controversial opinion; I think most people love leafing through those big, unwieldy albums to be found in grandparents' houses, with white-bordered snaps stuck down, sometimes with descriptions added alongside in curly, old-time writing - Elsie and our Doris, Bournemouth, 1956.


I find myself thinking about my now-elderly aunties and uncles in the pictures, marvelling that they were once skinny young things dashing about in swimsuits and - big shock, this - fashionable clothes. Photograph albums are edited, spare and intriguing, unlike the glut of images in my iPhone camera roll.


The albums on my mother-in-law's shelves have always been a magnet for my daughter. Eighteen now, she knows them by heart, the sepia faces that give way to technicolour polaroids and pictures of beloved dogs with a big pink thumb over the lens.


The past few years have seen great upheaval, but for us the pandemic was overshadowed by the death of my husband. My girl lost her daddy, but she found him again - healthy, smiling - in the albums. All those moments frozen in time have a different resonance now. They are part of his legacy, part of the pieces we fumble for when we fear we forget how he laughed, or the way his hair fell across his forehead.


Which led me to a realisation. There were no albums of my daughter's life. Everything was online, apart from a few framed, posed photographs. She deserved, I decided, a hefty book with a clear timeline of her happy, silly childhood.


I trawled through the countless snaps saved in my computer memory, in itself an emotional and cathartic journey. I chose the ones that would make it to the album and ordered them to be printed up like proper snaps, with a wide white border.


I shopped for albums, and chose wonderfully bulky, ornate ones. Lacquered, with tassels, as if I was documenting the life of a Chinese emperor and not a daft girlie. A gold felt-tip was sourced, for those all-important comments.


The photographs arrived. They overwhelmed me, sitting there in fat packets. For my daughter and me they represented a slice of our lives, but for him ... well, by the time I got to the end of the packets my husband's life would have found its full stop.


I persevered. What I had dreaded I soon came to relish. It took an age (and had to be done in secret; we are big on surprises in our family) but it was fun and creative, even if it did stop me in my tracks at times. To see your dead beloved smiling out at you, with that look on his face that lets you know that it was you behind the camera, you he was smiling at with that special gaze, disabled me at times. But in a good way, I reminded myself as my own eyes went fuzzy with tears.


The albums began with pictures of my pregnancy bump; I even included snaps of the terrible dungarees I thought were 'cute' but now realise made me look like an extra from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then the first picture of my new red and raw baby, resembling a piece of liver in a bobble hat. First steps. The party we threw where everyone had to dress up as Elvis. First day at school. Nativity plays. Christmas with the folks. New Year's Eve in Vienna.


The clothes we wore sparked more memories. The snowsuit my cousin bought her. The various cardigans I knitted for her. My husband, her dad, parading around in the fair isle he 'commissioned' from me.


And me. I was slim! I should have cut my fringe more often! And, oh, I was happy. True, we don't take pictures of each other when we're sobbing, but even so, that parade of smiles and creased-eye laughter was a reminder of the good times that pepper life.


When they were ready, I shared them with my girl. She pored over them like a scholar with an ancient text. She now adds to them; it's a habit. The albums sit snug - dare I say smug? - on a shelf.  When she goes to university later this year they'll go with her. Because they are home, with her family complete inside the pages, always available to her, always welcoming, and full of love.


The House That Made Us

One Day meets Up: The House That Made Us is a love story – and a life story – told through a series of photographs and inspired by a true story
When Mac and Marie marry and find a home of their own, Mac takes a snap of them outside their newbuild bungalow, the garden bare and the paint on the front door still wet. It becomes a tradition, this snap, and slowly the photographs build into an album of a fifty-year relationship.
Every year they take a photo and though things change around them – the garden matures, the fashions change, they grow older – the one constant is their love. Every year, come rain, come shine, from the Seventies through the decades, every photo tells the story of their love. But life never travels the path you expect it to, though they know that a life with love is a life lived to the full.

Now, in the present day, the photo album belongs to someone who doesn’t know the people in its pages. As they watch the lives from the past unfold, will the truth of their love story be told…?
A heart-breaking story about life and love for readers who love Holly Miller, Jojo Moyes and Hazel Prior.