looking at old photos
family,  midlife,  parenting

Time travelling old photos

I’ve never had much of a problem with getting older, but there are a few occasions when it does make you stop and think. Looking at old photos and realising that you are now the same age, or older, than your parents were back then – is one such moment.

Over the Easter weekend, we went back to visit various parents and, in the process, found ourselves perusing old photo albums.

For my wife and children, the site of me as a lanky, curtain-haired teenager brought much hilarity.

“Dad, that’s hilarious, you look so 80s,” more or less summed up my daughter’s reaction to every image of me in Bermuda shorts or with t-shirt tucked into stonewashed denim jeans.

However, looking at images that I hadn’t seen in decades brought back unexpected memories for me. I could recall when they were taken, remembered the rooms and the furniture, the story of the day or the event in the frame. I remembered the love of the people no longer with us, but caught forever in the images, their smiles as familiar today as they were back then.

“So, how old were you in that picture?” asked my wife, as we studied a photo of myself, my mum, stepdad and grandparents.

“I must have been about 17,” was my best guess.

“So, your Mum must be 44 in that one then,” concluded my ever observant other half.

This realisation suddenly made me see the picture differently. The Mum looking up at me was a year younger than I am now.

Generation game

As a child and a teenager, your parents are unfathomably old. They are a generation apart from you and of an entirely different era. Of course, the years don’t change, but the key difference is that as you get older, you can relate more to them as adults and as parents.

When you’re young, they’re just the old people who shower you with love and praise when you’ve done well and who send you to your room when you’ve done wrong. You can’t relate to them in any way other than as mum and dad, you have no empathy with the work they are doing to keep you well, clean, fed, educated and happy.

But, when you are an adult yourself, and a parent, that changes.

Looking at that photo, of a woman in her mid-forties who was raising three boys and who had, by that time of her life, gone through a bitter divorce, made me think how challenging those years must have been for her.

Of course, it’s the same time of life that I am going through now. My brothers and I were slightly older then than my children but, given how challenging we are finding ages 10 and 12, I can’t imagine how much grief an 11 year-old, 13-year-old and stroppy 17 year-old must have given her.

As is typical of my Mum, however, the smile in the photo shows nothing other than love and affection. Stress, and there must have been plenty of it, was always well hidden from my brothers and I.

To me, that photo also seemed like five minutes ago, rather than 28 years. My memory of that time is so vivid. The terryifying thought, therefore, is whether the next 28 years are going to go by as quickly.

I will be 73.

Time flies

The concept of time flying is one that we are all familiar with. Looking at old photos can exacerbate that feeling and, as I found this weekend, result in you contemplating where on earth the last three decades have gone.

Thankfully, however, science has concluded that the feeling of time passing quickly can be explained in a range of different cognitive, emotional and even environmental ways, all of which conspire to give you the illusion of time going by at a rate of knots. Theories include:

Memory compression: Research suggests that our memories of events can influence our perception of time. When we recall past events, we tend to focus on the most salient and memorable moments, rather than the less significant details. This can create a distorted memory of time, making it feel like time went by more quickly than it actually did. In other words, we only remember the good bits and not all the tedious, time-consuming, dull bits that fill the gaps.

Attentional resources: One theory is that the more attentional resources we devote to a task or event, the slower time seems to pass. In contrast, when we are multitasking or distracted, time appears to fly by. This may explain why we often feel that our childhood years lasted longer than our adult years. Children tend to be more focused on the present moment (food, now) and less distracted by worries and responsibilities (how am I going to pay for the food? What food shall I buy? What will they like? What if they don’t like it? Should I get an alternative just in case? How do you cook it? How long will it take? What if I give them food poisoning? How do you treat food poisoning? Where’s the nearest hospital?) .

Emotional intensity: A further theory is that our emotional state can influence our perception of time. When we are in a positive or enjoyable state, time seems to pass quickly, while when we are in a negative or unpleasant state, time seems to drag on.

So, when you bear the above three theories in mind, it’s no surprise that looking at old photos can make you feel strange and contemplative as to the passing of time. A photograph, by its very nature, is a compressed moment of time and old photos – taken with old, film cameras – often only capture the really salient moments. And my family’s trusty analogue camera only ever really used to be dug out of the drawer at times of high emotion and enjoyment – unlike the 100 photos a day that are now taken on our mobile phones.

The next generation

While looking at my teenage self with my children provided much enjoyment for them, and a moment of reflection for me, it also made me wonder what they will think of their mum and I when they look at today’s photographs in 28 years’ time.

I hope that their children ruthlessly take the mickey out of their clothes and that they stop to think about how challenging a time it must have been bringing up two bickering, screen-addicted 21st Century youngsters.

In the meantime, I think I’ll make a point of thanking my Mum a bit more for all that she did for us back in the 80s and 90s, although I still don’t know what she was thinking buying us those Bermuda shorts.

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  • Michelle (Boomer Eco Crusader)

    Hi Tim. Thanks for providing the scientific theories of why time flies. Now, if only scientists could find a way to slow it down. Not all the time…just the good times. Now that would be good.
    I’ll be turning 60 next year and it doesn’t feel possible. At a get-together with some of my high school friends earlier this year, one of them said “Do you feel 60?” It’s a great question and one I’ve pondered many times. In my mind, I feel like a just-slightly-older and wiser version of the 18-year old just starting out after high school. My body, on the other hand, sometimes has different ideas.

  • Smelly Socks and Garden Peas

    I’ve been digging into my family history and my parents have shared loads of old photos with me. The one of them as teenagers on the beach horrified my 11 yr old son. But more stunning is my great grandmother, baby on hip, who stares back at me like a black and white mirror.

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