Narrative Identity and Photographs: An essay by Jeri Walker

JeriWB 03As promised, here is an honest and poignant essay by Jeri Walker, a writer and editor who has been a friend of this blog almost since the beginning. If you’ve ever had to take care of an aging parent this essay will resonant with you. If you’re looking for an editor, Jeri’s many clients all sing her praises.  If you’re looking for vivid and “no holds barred” writing, check out her stories on Amazon.

Parents mess their children up. That’s a given. But in the same breath, they’re trying to do their best. The waning of my parents’ health has coincided with my rather shocking divorce, and I find myself at a crossroads. I can’t change the people who have hurt me. After years of stagnation, it’s time to put myself back on a transformative path.

A bevy of oxygen tanks, tubes, and inhalers ushered in the reality of parental decrepitude this past holiday season. My perpetually active father is now besieged by emphysema, no doubt exacerbated by a former smoking habit and long career as a silver miner. On the other hand, my eternally stubborn mother did not seek proper medical treatment for worsening asthma symptoms and ended up being intubated right before Thanksgiving and then once again at Christmas. 

It’s hard to hold a grudge against the wheezing and frail creatures who could once yell and curse with such gusto. I find my personality in flux, and my brain seeking to make sense of the hand I’ve been dealt. I’m rebuilding the past, observing the present, and imagining the future. Brains strive to create a narrative identity for the sake of giving some kind of structure and meaning to essentially chaotic lives. It’s time to revise my personal narrative. 

Old photographs remind me my parents are only human. All things considered, I turned out okay.

Wedding Collage

On their wedding day, they shared the sideways glances of the smitten. She was still in her teens, and he was twenty-three. At least Dad had made it out of Idaho for a few years before coming back. When I was a kid Mom had told me she thought about joining the air force, but getting married straight out of high school was the thing many people tended to do in those days. They set up house, had kids. They drank, they fought, they made up.

Mom knew she was a looker. A delicate but fiery redhead with a rebellious streak. Her father an alcoholic, and her maternal grandfather mentally ill. She slept under the attic eaves so she could have some space to herself in my grandparents’ house that lacked electricity or running water. She was the middle child. The troubled one.     

Mom Collage

The mother I’ve known has often not been very happy. The first psychotic break occurred in her late twenties, followed by another not long after my birth. At some point, I lost count of the hospitalizations. When I started middle school, both sisters were out of the house. Thus began a four-year stretch where I did my best to look after her while Dad was at work. The shame of having a crazy mother molded me.

In between manic episodes, I remember good times when she would smile and heartily laugh. Those time were far and few between. Sometimes we snuggled on the couch as she watched soap operas, but most of the parenting I got came in the form of instilling common sense. Don’t get me wrong, knowing how to take care of one’s self is a good thing. I just wish I would have felt cared for.

Dad Collage

The father I’ve known has tended to cuss a blue streak, his carefully coifed Brylcreem hairdo marking him as a perpetual greaser. The reputation of this tough-as-nails man precedes him as it does with all Walkers. He had to be able to stand on his own two feet growing up in a household of eighteen children. He still doesn’t take any shit from anybody, and can be hard to like—though old age has mellowed him.

At the same time, he’s the one who carved pumpkins and dyed Easter Eggs with me. He held the seat of my bike as I learned to pedal on my own. He is the one who entertained me with stories of Squeaky the invisible mouse who lived in his shirt pocket, and Dad is also the hero who burned the Boogie Man up in the stove. Only years later, did I grasp what an expert miner he was and good dad.

Like all those we love, we love them despite their imperfections. We love them knowing only bits and pieces of the whole person. All any of us can do is attempt to be a better version of ourselves, to not give in under crushing circumstances, to remain strong. Let’s focus on the possibilities of the present rather than letting ourselves be mired down by the past or crippled by the what ifs of the future.

Our lives really are stories written line by line, minute by minute.

When is the last time you browsed old family photos? What do those photos invoke?

About Jeri: Truth really is stranger than fiction, and it’s a long damn story. The psychological and romantic overtones of Jeri Walker’s contemporary fiction stem from growing up in the eccentric North Idaho mining town of Wallace and then later falling in love while working in Yellowstone and Everglades National Parks. The influence of a bipolar mother and Jekyll-and-Hyde ex populate her literary landscape. 

She and her demanding pets call the Pacific Northwest home. In the continual pursuit of finding herself, she plans to someday live in an RV or a tiny house. She dwells online at Word Bank Writing & Editing, eternally grateful to be charting a course as a freelancer. 

51 thoughts on “Narrative Identity and Photographs: An essay by Jeri Walker

  1. Jan, thanks for having me as a guest. I knew I wanted to do some writing inspired by the old photos I took pictures of with my iPhone when I had my visit with family over the holidays. You’ve featured so many great family photos on your blog, so I’ve felt the collages I made have found a good home here.

    1. It was my pleasure! Yes, old pictures really do cause you to reflect on your life, often painfully. Your essay hits the nail on the head.

    1. J.B., I only wish I would have had more time to take pictures during my visit. I could have spend all day doing so, but only had a couple of hours. Pictures always evoke so many memories and act as great triggers for writing.

    1. Glyn, thanks so much for noting the honesty I’ve conveyed. It’s hard to make sense of all those pieces that are the sum of our parts in a way that won’t step on too many toes when writing about those we know.

  2. Jeri – thank you for sharing more of yourself with us. In our small BHB group, it is so easy to consider the members friends, caring about and supporting each other. I don’t think you quite realize yet your inner strength but it’s there and I am so pleased to know you.

    1. Lenie, I love being able to share posts like this, and I used to more so on my other blog before it became so proper and businesslike. It it weren’t for the BHB group, I know it would have been so much more difficult to stick with blogging those first couple of years. It’s been great getting to know more about you as well.

  3. This is a powerful and poignant story. It doesn’t sound like the easiest of lives, but it’s wonderful that you have come through not only with strength but with compassion. As a parent of a lovely adult daughter who is struggling to find her path in the world, I view the sentence near the beginning “Parents mess their children up” from a different perspective. Lately I have been thinking about the ways we shape our children, intended or unintended, and wondering if I could have done things differently to make things easier and clearer for her now. In the end all we can do is love and attempt to be a better version of ourselves.

    1. Donna, it hasn’t been an easy life but it’s been my life–the only one I’ve known. Your daughter will find her way. We all do eventually, even if a lot of kicking and screaming has to be involved. My perspective toward my parents has changed and not changed in various ways over the years. Had they been any different, I would not be me. At the end of the day, I do kinda like me 🙂

  4. Great post, Jeri! I love that you are so real in your experience. Both my parents passed so reading this brought back good and not so good memories. I love looking at pictures from my youth. When I was a kid, I was the photographer and took pictures of every activity in my life. Now, when I go through the photos, I feel like I relive my life over again. Recently, I starting getting rid of any not so happy memory photos. I read a while back, that when you go through photos that are sad or upsetting, you should get rid of them because it connects you to the sadness again. So, that is what I did. I got rid of all of the sad or upsetting photos. It was an interesting experience. I definitely felt less sad and for some reason lighter. I’m not sure if it works but I figured I would try it. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Sabrina, your comment reflects so much of where I’m at right now. I’ve been going through a lifetime of photos and getting rid of the ones that evoke sad memories (mostly ones of my ex). It’s strange though when I think about the ones I am keeping. They’re ones of him fly fishing. Those make me happy because he really stuck with teaching himself how to do it and got pretty good at it. The same goes for old letters. I got rid of those too after one last read.

  5. Wonderful story Jeri and the photos are the perfect touch. The last time I looked at old family photos was after my dad died of a heart attack. He mailed a package to me the morning he died with a bunch of old family photos I’d never seen before along with a long letter which was very unlike him. Maybe it’s a simple case of hindsight, but it felt like he was saying goodbye. Thanks for the enjoyable read.

    1. Marty, thanks for sharing that anecdote about your father. I’ve been combing through twenty years of photo albums and condensing them into half as many albums. Despite the digital age, I still love keeping albums to leaf through.

  6. That’s my husband of 35 years holding the jack leg in the mining picture. I remember drinking beer in your basement after they would get off of graveyard shift. A whole different life ago……

  7. This made me cry. I love those pictures of your family. The picture with the profile of your father with a cigarette hanging from his mouth is classic 50s/60s to me. Yes, our parents didn’t always do it right, but many of them did what they thought was right. They tried, which is a wonderful thought.

  8. Throughout our lives, parents naturally always look old to us but last year, I made some slideshow movies as gifts for my parents. My sister and I dug up old pictures of them when the were younger than we are now. I was struck by their youth and beauty and mourned the fact that I couldn’t appreciate it back then. I can see that beauty in your parent’s photos too. They look like movie stars.

    I was hard on my mom and dad as a teenager, thinking they were uncool and clueless. Only now do I know what they went through to raise us. They were fresh out of high school, like yours, and dealt with my little sister’s birth defect, financial difficulties, and the challenges of marriage. Mental illness is present in our family too, which was something that we’re knee-deep in now.

    I’m almost forty and I don’t have any children, and I still can’t imagine that I’m grown-up enough to have them. This is a beautiful thought and essay, Jeri. Thanks for sharing this intimate part of your life. Here’s to our parents, flawed and beautiful. They give us our quirks and our character.

    1. Christa, thanks for sharing such a moving comment. When I was going through the photos it was the first time I was truly struck by how good looking both of them were, and that’s after looking at those photos on and off my whole life. Like you, I’m almost forty and don’t think I’ll ever feel grown-up enough to have kids. I made my mind up about that largely due to how out of sorts I often felt when I was a child. I was lucky though in that my sisters are eleven and nine years older than me. They helped take great care of me when I needed it most.

      1. Luckily, my parents were always very loving. Growing up was hard enough even with a happy family. I always feel such pity for those who spent their childhood in an unhappy home. Kids should never have to feel that way.

        I have two amazing sisters and I know I’d be very lonely in this world without them. Thank goodness you had your sisters. I’m sure this was difficult to write about, but I’m also sure it was therapeutic in some way. Thanks again for this reflection and I pray your parents can maintain some quality of life despite all the problems.

  9. You do see something in old photos of your parents. I remember seeing my mom and dad’s pictures. Each of them had bright eyes, their lives was just beginning.
    My father was tall and broad shouldered, much different than I remember him, after life and hard work bowed him over and caused him to be blind.
    It also made me think about how they were, and the sacrifices they made for their children in their lives. What dreams, desires and opportunities did they give up, so their children would be secure and safe.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  10. Beautiful post, Jeri and so very true. I had to care for my Dad after Mum died. That was when his dementia was first diagnosed, but Dad had not been the Dad of my memories for years before then. Only after his death, when I too went through the old photos did I get ‘my’ Dad back. Strangely, those photos turned grieving into joy.

    The thing I remember most about Dad’s final years though, was how odd it felt to become the ‘parent’. At that point three generations were sharing the one house, Dad, me and my daughter, so I should have known all about being a parent already. But it’s scary when your safety net is taken away and you become the sole safety net of those you love. I think that’s when I finally grew up.


    1. AC, my middle sister is the one who has been helping my parents out the most. I live eight hours away, so I try to do what I can to help her stress out a bit less. Mom’s house has stabilized more and more since Christmas, so that’s a good thing.

      1. My sympathy with you both. It’s going to hurt no matter who does what. We all tend to believe ‘that’ moment will never come, I know I did. And I know I suffered from a mild depression because of it. Not clinical, just blue. But now that I’m through the other side, I know that the process was necessary and made me a much stronger person. -big hugs-

  11. Thank you for sharing matters so close to your heart. It takes great strength to share hurts and pains that are still very much a part of your life.

    Our parents are only human. As a child I thought my mum was superhuman, that she could handle anything and conquer anyone. How far from the truth this was!

    Now, I have children of my own, I feel the great sense of responsibility that my mother once did.

  12. Hi Jeri – I’m thinking after reading your essay that you’re a person with a generosity of spirit. That you don’t sit around in constant judgment of your parents or anyone else for that matter. You see the good, and that’s good. Fact is, you don’t sit around at all. I have this picture of you working from dawn to dusk to get it all done. You’re strong and resilient. There’s a long road ahead for you, and very good things will come to meet you in time. Keep up the good work.


    1. Larry, my therapist would agree with your comment whole heartedly. Somedays I work all day long, but a large part of the past fifteen months has been about getting my head back in the game. I suppose it helps that I’m strong, stubborn, and patient.

    1. Grace, the best thing about time is what it makes the wounds hurt a bit less. Writing has always been a great help to me in working through all that’s happened to me, much like the way you wrote such a revealing memoir. I like that so much about you as a writer.

  13. I was surprised to find that your dad, Jerry Walker, was a fellow Wallace High School grad of 1961. I really didn’t know him when we went to school. I don’t know why he’s never come to a reunion with our class. I’m sorry to hear that the cigarettes have caught up to him—same thing happened to my parents. This article was well written. Thanks. Sally (Hussa) Holtz Osburn, Idaho

    1. Sally, my dad and I are alike in that we tend to keep to ourselves–even in a town as small as Wallace. He hasn’t been to a family reunion in a while either. It’s just never his type of thing, though he is quite the social maven when it comes to stopping for his one drink early in the day so he can catch up on all the latest town gossip.

    1. Kathy, somedays I think it must be possible to spend an entire life trying to sort out the pieces of who’s shaped us and why we are the way we are. It’s a good thing I’m drawn to writing creative nonfiction.

  14. Straight forward, honest, from the gut writing always makes me breathless. This essay is marvelous, Jeri. The old photographs compliment the story perfectly; looking through a lens to the soul. To see the very seed of who you are today is so special! Thanks for sharing this part of you.

  15. Jeri, I think you are wise to get these feelings out in public, semi public. You had a lot to deal with and you came through it all as a kind and giving person. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  16. I just spent three days with a once strong and feisty mother who has hit the debilitating skids of old age. You eloquently expressed what is in my heart. Thank you.

  17. What a wonderful guest post by Jeri, whose work I have followed for a long time now. I do not often browse old photos but now I am more likely to! Such heartfelt writing, well done.

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