Prompt Images

As a kid, I was obsessed with the high dive at our local municipal pool. At the start of each summer, I’d plot how I’d finally tackle the tallest of the three gleaming white fiberglass boards. I even made it up the ladder a few times, only to panic at the top and force the line of kids behind me to crawl back down, grumbling like a chlorine-soaked centipede.

But the summer I turned 13, everything changed.

I got my first kiss, my first training bra, and my first surge of undeserved moxy. I—and my barely-there A cups—climbed the highest ladder, strutted to the edge of the plank, and stepped off. I’d expected to feel something akin to flying; instead, my insides unmoored from their visceral bearings as I plummeted, screaming, unable to slow my freefall. I hated the sensation and never jumped again.

I hadn’t thought about my short-lived diving career, perhaps ever, until this past June. Courtesy of Shutterfly, a photo of me at that pool in the early 1980s appeared in my Inbox with the tagline, “your memories from this day 9 years ago.”

A memory within a memory: that image was one of many photos displayed at my surprise 40th birthday party… 9 years ago.

These weekly memory emails—a service I never signed up for— also say “we thought you’d enjoy these.”  No, you thought I’d buy a mug with a photo on it. Sometimes I open the emails, but it depends on my mindset at the moment. I mean, Shutterfly has no bereavement setting or it would not have thought I’d “enjoy” seeing a pic of my deceased cousin a half hour before I had to give a lecture to dozens of grad students.

Shutterfly also doesn’t have a “midlife sensitivity” setting, or it wouldn’t keep sending me drooling, cherubic baby pics of my now brooding teenagers, or shots of me in my early 30s posing on some beach in a bikini-clad body that I no longer recognize.

Come to think of it, Shutterfly is missing myriad human compassion settings.

But it’s a machine, so the blame rests squarely with me. And because I do have a midlife sensitivity setting, I can (usually) admit when shit is my fault.

I could disable the emails, but I don’t.

One, I’m lazy and a bit of a luddite. Two, I’m intrigued by the emotional roulette its emails invoke in me. Am I gloomy or hopeful today? Are my kids and I in a good place right now? Do these pants feel too tight? It’s not just the risk of seeing a long-dead pet.

Every email memory is from another life.

For 15 years I prodigiously cataloged life through photos. I had Shutterfly folders for milestones, holidays, and special events. I was the family chronicler. But that was then. I haven’t uploaded a picture to Shutterfly in almost six years, since my kids were 9 and 11, since the divorce.

Every image is the last of something: a family ski trip; a girls’ trip with the women who unfriended me after my divorce; or the last Thanksgiving in that house. Sometimes it stings; but shouldn’t part of my penance for starting a new life at 43 include reminders of what I did, in the end, put asunder? Either way, it’s best to know if I can handle whatever time travel goodies that Shutterfly’s profit-bot has shoved into my inbox before clicking. Not because my life now sucks—life is great, and I’m quite happy—but because I’m in a total fucking freefall.

I am 49 years old. Forty-nine. Foor-teeh-naahn. Almost fifty.

I say it a lot these days, mostly out of shock but also self-imposed immersion therapy. If I say it enough, I’ll eventually accept my finitude with grace. So far, it’s not working. Time just keeps speeding up. I’m healthy, but oblivion seems proximate. On a recent college trip with my son, he bought mugs and sweatshirts at the university bookstore; I bought a book on nihilism. I don’t know what’s happened to me.

I think this is why the image of me at the pool stuck out.

I’m her again. It’s like I spent four decades slowly, carefully climbing the tallest ladder, headed towards that white high-dive board. Always so careful, holding both railings, sure each step is sound and squarely in the middle of the rung just like all the adults said to. Then I spent my 40s confidently strolling across the plank, humming my own tune, enjoying the view from behind and ahead. And then somewhere along the way, I just jumped, expecting to feel something akin to flying. But here I am once more, plummeting towards some grayed-out horizon, this time unmoored from my youth.

A tad dramatic, I know. But at my age, drama is far more interesting than malaise.

I still take pictures, just not with the same feverish compulsion I used to. Perhaps it’s because now I prefer to simply be in the moment instead of freezing it. Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to interrupt fleeting moments with a “hold still” followed by a flash. Perhaps because I can’t see what the hell I’m photographing without my readers, which are always someplace else, I just give up.

For now, I am going to leave the Shutter-fly-by’s as they are. Let them invade my inbox unexpectedly, test my will, and remind me that there is so much more over my shoulder than up ahead. I can take it. It’s good for me, part of my immersion therapy. I hope.

I really should load something new into Shutterfly though. I would love to be surprised at work with “your memories from this day 2 years ago” and see me, Jon, my kids, and his kids on the beach in Turks & Caicos.

Natalie Brandt

Natalie is a lawyer and mom trapped in Texas. Wildly outspoken about the separation of church and state, she can quickly kill a dinner party but always brings good wine.

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