I held the well-worn camera tightly to my chest, a reminder of abuelito. It had been a gift from abuelito’s father-in-law and his most prized possession. Now it was mine. When we reached the casket, I was tempted to place the camera in his marble hands. It felt somehow wrong for me to keep it. I restrained myself from doing this, instead I lifted the camera up as if I were taking a picture. I brought it back to my chest slowly, realizing that I had no idea how to operate it. Abuelito was always trying to teach me how to use the camera, going on about IS something or other and aperture, one of my SAT words but I had no idea what it meant in the context of photography. Even though I had no interest in learning about photography, for many years I was content to be abuelito’s model. As I got older, what had once excited me grew to be a nuisance. I appeared less and less in abuelito’s later photos. In the few that I did appear in, I oftentimes looked annoyed, uncomfortable, or sullen. The last picture abuelo took of me was from prom. My date stood awkwardly off to the side and I donned a close-lipped fake smile. It’s almost as if the pictures were able to capture our own relationship dynamics, how I grew more and more distant, how we grew further and further apart. I cradled the camera, the memories flooding my eyes with tears. I was stung by the realization that I had been a bad granddaughter, a horrible nieta.
Taking a seat in the corner of the room, I tried to keep my distance from the casket and from my family, the tias and tios, the primos and primas, all trying to be comforting but suffocating me all the while. When little Carmelita came up to me, I felt my own quiet mourning disrupted. I wiped the tears from my eyes stealthily, trying to compose myself.
She pretended to pose, her small hands on her hips, “Take a picture of me with abuelito’s camera, Nani.” she cried out. I held the camera up and pretended to take picture after picture until Carmelita said she was tired and that I could stop. The camera felt heavy in my hands, heavier than it had ever felt. Carmelita wanted to see the pictures and I guiltily promised to show them to her later. The truth was I had no idea how to even turn on the camera. There had to be an on button, I pressed and probed gingerly trying to figure it out. The screen lit up after a few attempts, my own face lighting up along with it. It felt like a momentous victory. I was not going to let abuelito down after all. Even if I still had much to learn, that was a start. I hesitantly pressed and probed further.
It caught me off-guard when the screen changed, showing a picture of someone at the hospital. I recognized the room, had spent so many nights sleeping on the chair in the corner of the picture and looking out the very window that was featured in its center. I brought the camera closer to my face, trying to discern who the person in the frame was. I let out a gasp, almost dropping the camera, when I realized it was a picture of me. I was facing away, looking out the window, my body silhouetted by the light flitting in. I thought the last picture abuelito had taken had been on the night of prom, but it seemed he had taken a more recent one.
I looked otherworldly in the photo, a teenage girl transformed into an angel, a creature of light. I could not see my face but there was a certain defiance, a strength that seemed to radiate from the image. How can so much be revealed from the back of someone’s head, the way they hold themselves, the way their fingers curl? Was this how abuelito saw me? Not like the teenager he captured in the prom photos, a fake smile plastered on her face, embarrassment in her eyes. That was the me I thought I was, the role I struggled to perform. Maybe that’s why abuelito liked photography,for its ability to transform the mundane. I always had thought photography was about capturing what was already there. And yes, there was a component of capturing reality in this photo but it was a reality shaped by abuelito’s hands like an artist at the pottery wheel. In truth, to ignore the nuances of abuelito’s photographs, was to ignore the nuances of abuelito’s words and actions. I finally understood why he had left me the camera. What I held in my hands contained his message to me, a message that I failed to listen to when he was alive. I clicked through the rest of abuelito’s photos, an unquenchable need to see more. The last few images were all from the hospital, every family member featured at least once. Abuelito even had a photo of mom, sipping on a cup of coffee. Mom rarely ever let anyone take a picture of her, it seemed she had made an exception for abuelito. It was a shame that there were no pictures of him in the camera roll. (Why hadn’t I thought of taking any?) And yet I felt his presence in all the photos, as if he had left a piece of himself in every single one of them.
As I sat there, I finally allowed myself to cry openly, ugly, shuddering cries that ranked my whole body. The type of cries that used to be a staple of my childhood, only to be replaced by the silent type, the cries that only betrayed my stone-faced expression because tears were involved. Even as I held a part of my abuelito, I knew I would never again see him. The good-bye was not any easier, but the camera was the closest I would get to holding his hand.