What do you see?

First there is a mountain,
then there is no mountain,
then there is.

“There is a Mountain”
Donovan Leitch

Recently I searched for a picture of my father for an upcoming project.  It wasn’t easy. He’s 16 years gone. He didn’t like being photographed, so he often looked angry or bored in pictures. I’m no better, really. I usually have my mouth wide open or one eye closed. In our 30-year relationship, I found only two suitable pictures of us together, as in no other people were sitting or standing between us, and everyone was sober.

In one, I am an infant and we are standing in front of what I believe is a Cessna 172. My father had a personal pilot’s license for most of my early childhood so we were often at airports. The other shot is in South Dakota, sometime in the mid 1970s, and it is almost perfect except my pants are mid-calf, flapping in anticipation of rising waters.

I came upon these pictures after visiting my mother’s house and raiding her photo archives.  These pictures in all their Kodachrome brilliance represent more than the passage of time. They illustrate how we see what we want to see rather than what’s there. Over time the pictures, which do not change, shape shift through the lens of our selective eye, tell us different things about ourselves, our relationships with others, and how it all stacks up against the stories in our head.


  • I look upon my young adult self with a much kinder eye. I once had thin legs and good skin. All the other things I once nitpicked about? Forgotten and undetectable.
  • I look upon photos of my child self with a mix of horror and humor. Look under you’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny and you’ll find my fifth-grade picture.
  • I look upon my mother with forgiveness. No matter what was going on behind closed doors, she always dressed nicely and smiled for the camera.
  • In spite of all their problems, my mother and father, who traveled the world, put on a pretty good show in a photographic sense.
  • It’s clear my brother won the good gene lottery. He is tall and lean and fit. He inherited the thick hair, narrow hips and long legs of my father’s family.  I had my moment in the sun (no doubt while slathered in tanning oil, a Marlboro Light burning in each hand) somewhere between 1982 and 2002, a good two-decade run, and then I morphed into a middle-aged pear with big eye bags and a tie-dyed scarf to distract your attention.
  • In spite of all the dysfunction, we were once a big, tight-knit family. The hell I perceived in the heated glory of those large Bacchanalia pales in the shadow of today’s drafty ghost gatherings. Could I have ever imagined what it would be like when the room emptied, the music stopped, the lights dimmed?

The older I get the more I see how I’m hurtling through time on my father’s trajectory. He waged an epic battle with inner demons. He bore the scars in his face, his hands, his body. A once-handsome man slowly destroying himself, a man who was once a husband and father, but became a shell going through the motions. He fought until he gave up and the earth swallowed him whole.  I may be doing a better job keeping the devils outside the gate, but they are rattling the bars.

I think we cling to the history we weave inside our heads, a mostly comforting if not scratchy in a few places blanket that we throw over the truth. When the truth reveals itself in all is bright and naked intensity, it is almost too much to bear. We look away, grab the blanket, and stick the thumb back in our mouth.

It’s how we make the mountain disappear.


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