Last spring during a seemingly endless stretch of lockdown in Ontario, I received an unexpected package from my dear friend Susan. In the box was a Polaroid camera with a construction-paper note written in her trademark block letters.

“Hello. I found a cheap Polaroid on Facebook marketplace. Please take 8 photos (1 film pack) of mini-adventures or large adventures or everyday life. Enclose in box, along with camera and description of photos. Send to next person. Take around two weeks per person. If it’s fun, we’ll do a second lap.”

Below the letter was a helpful diagram pointing from Susan in Madison, to me in Toronto, to Kelsey in Atlanta, back to Monica in Madison.

Susan also enclosed an envelope with her eight photos and a letter to explain them. She admitted that the two-week time frame might be too short, and that it was hard to remember to take photos of anything. I read her letter with a huge smile, holding each photo like it was a piece of my friend. This one showed her new dog. This one showed her excitedly washing her car in her own driveway for the first time. Another showed her toasting at an outdoor restaurant, or working from home with her husband, or excitedly waiting for her vegetables to sprout.

The images made me miss Susan’s living room, the takeout place she mentioned, the lake. I felt bittersweet about the life she got to lead in the city I missed. But that twinge of the heart was better than the numbness that had set in for me during that long winter. And even though I’d already been messaging Susan often, getting the traveling Polaroid was a delight.

Susan’s idea was based on the young adult novels The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, where four best friends discover a pair of “magic” jeans that fits all of them perfectly. During their first summer apart since childhood, they mail the pants to each other and enclose letters detailing all their escapades. I loved the series as a teen and longed for friendships like what Bridget, Tibby, Lena, and Carmen shared. In college and in Madison, I was blessed to find those friendships.

I was excited to contribute my own photos to the project, but wasn’t sure where to start. I sent photos to these friends via Snapchat almost every day and shared life updates and anecdotes in our group chat. Snail mail and physical photos seemed nearly archaic compared to the methods I already used to keep in touch with those I missed.

But I remembered how special photo-taking used to be. When I was growing up, my family would pose on duct-taped spots on the floor for our formal Christmas photo or wait weeks to see our vacation pictures developed from film. Now, I send Snapchat photos all day long with hardly any thought behind them. Here’s my dog looking cute, here’s how my yard looks today. The photos disappear after being viewed for a few seconds, and the sender and recipient move on with their lives. I do love Snapchat, but the Polaroid brought importance back to photo sharing. I had these eight chances to share a tactile snippet of my new life.

At times it felt like too much pressure. And it was hard to remember to grab the big Polaroid when my phone was always in my pocket. But the photos I took, despite sometimes being under- or over-exposed, were lovely in their own way. They were final. They were a slideshow of my life that could be touched but not retouched.

I took photos of Josh at the grill and my dog under our magnolia tree, of playing board games, of taking a mandatory covid test at home during our quarantine. I wrote my letter imagining Kelsey reading it in her new home in Atlanta. I sent it off.

Kelsey had the camera all summer and admitted, like Susan, that she kept forgetting to take pictures of anything. Her photos showed moving boxes, home projects, parent visits, and her pregnant belly. The letter described settling into her new home and preparing for her baby’s arrival.

The camera reached Monica after her wedding, which was a grand event in which we all were together and took only digital photos. Monica used the Polaroid to document projects at her new home and a visit with Susan and Nathan where “they fed us some of the most truly terrible seltzers that I have ever had.” Her letter described getting to know the employees at Menards during her renovations and a fluke at her husband’s work that led to a surplus of 13,000 ice cream bars that the employees got to share.

Monica finished with the Polaroid just in time for Susan to bring it to me on her visit to Toronto, where we reviewed the letters with renewed joy. We discovered that, characteristically, between the four of us a full twenty-five percent of our photos featured houseplants.

When it was my turn again, the obligation to take Polaroids was a bit of a burden. I felt bad for forgetting to photograph big events like Christmas. Still, the photographs I did take are special, with a vintage, unpolished candidness that my Instagram cannot attain.

How many of my life events have no physical photos to show for them, only cleverly captioned Facebook albums? I ordered a hundred prints of my study abroad pictures, only to forget them in a box. Compare this to my mom’s lovingly curated photo albums of her kids’ childhoods, labeled in handwritten cursive. As a child I loved looking through these albums, which had a distinct smell I came to think of as the smell of memory itself.

What I love about the traveling Polaroid is that it keeps us accountable to take photos that are guaranteed to be seen.

In the fourth book of the Sisterhood series, the young women realize they’ve been using the traveling pants as a substitute for maintaining real connection with each other. I’m not worried about that happening to us. As I write this, I am waiting at the gate for my flight to Atlanta, where the four of us will reunite for the first time since Monica’s wedding. We’ll drink wine, share stories, meet Kelsey’s baby, and discuss our new married lives. I know for a fact that the next photo the Polaroid takes will be of the four of us, together.

2 Comments

  1. Barbara Johnson

    This story made we smile with joyful pleasure. It’s so important to have that special sisterhood, last night eight of my sisterhood got together to play euchre. We have been doing this for over 40 years, we use to start after we all got out of work, drink to much wine and stayed out until 12:00.
    Now we start at 4:00 pm have one glass of wine, some snacks and on our way home by 7:00pm.
    But one things continues to be the same, we share those old photos of years gone bye. What a trip down memory lane, so many changes but what a trip it has been with these amazing women.
    Miles my separate your sisterhood, but keep sharing those photos .

    Reply
  2. Shirley DIEDERICH

    Any chance you and Josh will be able to visit Madison this summer? It would be wonderful to see you.

    Reply

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