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After one of the year’s least picture-perfect moments, Holly West scrubbed skunk spray off the family dog.
After one of the year’s least picture-perfect moments, Holly West scrubbed skunk spray off the family dog. Nancy Shohet West

My December “To Do” list brims with yearly rituals: bake, shop, host, plan, attend, wrap, mail.

My January “To Do” list, by contrast, typically boasts only one perennial project: The Making of the Photo Album.

Several years ago, I discovered that I could upload digital photos to a website, click on a couple of layouts and backgrounds, type in my credit card, and voila — a bound album, all of my favorite photos from the previous year perfectly preserved on its flat, magazine-like pages, a narrative in images of my family’s life as it unfolded through the course of the calendar year just concluded.

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I can’t keep up with printing photos from digital files throughout the year — can anyone? — but as a once-a-year blitz, I can manage it.

So last week, just as I now do every January, I sat down to pore over photos to make up my photo book. But a growing sense of dismay soon overtook my cheerful sense of initiative.

It wasn’t that there weren’t plenty of choices. I’d taken hundreds of pictures in the course of those 12 months. Parties, picnics, vacations, celebrations. Spontaneous snaps. Posed group shots. My teenage daughter heading off to prom. My parents celebrating their 57th anniversary. A visit with my son at college. Our family standing outside Windsor Castle on a London vacation. My 35th high school reunion.

But where’s everything else? I puzzled momentarily. Yes, these are good pictures — but this doesn’t seem like everything that happened to us this year. Where’s the rest of the story?

True, there were parties and hikes and boating excursions and vacations. But there were other events that seemed just as significant. My father-in-law moved in with us for four months while he recovered from orthopedic surgery. My daughter had mono. Our dog got sprayed by a skunk. We’d started an initially exciting home improvement project that was now threatening to stretch into eternity. But I didn’t have photos to represent any of those seemingly important events.

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And that’s no surprise. Who takes pictures of their child with mono, or their dog stinking of skunk? Yet it felt incomplete to me.

One afternoon earlier this month, my daughter and I were sitting at our kitchen table. Outside, snow was falling steadily from a dull gray sky. Between us was a plate of leftover Christmas cookies. I was finishing a writing assignment while my daughter worked on her college applications. I felt cozy and happy.

“This is the best day,” I murmured, slipping my phone out to try to capture the scene — the snow falling, the cookies, the article draft unspooling on my computer screen, my daughter working through her college essays.

“The best day,” I captioned it as I started composing a descriptive post.

But my daughter saw me. “Mom, you can’t post that photo!” she exclaimed, picking up my phone to take a look. “I’m in pajamas and my hair looks gross. And you can’t say I’m writing college applications or everyone will think I didn’t get in anywhere early decision!”

“But you didn’t apply anywhere early decision,” I pointed out.

“But no one will know that!”

And so the best day so far this year won’t be reflected in my next photo album, just as last year’s seems woefully incomplete.

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With that thought, I returned to my digital files and started combing through them again, more carefully this time. I found a few photos I’d forgotten about.

There was one of my father-in-law sitting in the sunshine on our front porch, his crutches by his side, his leg in a heavy brace. And one of my daughter giving the skunk-sprayed dog a shampoo. I even had a photo of my husband and son sprawled side by side installing tiles in our new pantry, though the project was still far from complete and the photo failed to reflect what exhausting work it was.

None of these photos is good enough for an album, from an artistic standpoint. But from a narrative perspective, they are all part of the story. And so I’ll include them.

It’s still a somewhat biased view of the year, of course. No one takes pictures of themselves leaving a funeral or getting over a breakup. In some respects, I’ll still have to rely on my memory to bridge the events of the year that the album doesn’t show.

It’s a start, though. And maybe the picture I took last week of the snow, the cookies, and the quiet companionable afternoon will make it into my next album after all — as long as I’m sure to omit from the caption any reference to college applications, and Photoshop out the messy hair.


Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.