The thief

Running along the wall of our dining room is a large dresser, the end cupboard of which is almost filled by photo albums. Ever since the birth of our first daughter, we have selected the best of our digital photographs and had them printed in albums. Albums for summer holidays, albums for short breaks and albums for all the small events throughout the year. Whereas we almost never look at our digital photos, we regularly get out the printed albums and cuddle up together on the sofa to have a look. The girls love seeing themselves when they were smaller, and the youngest has a lot of fun spotting her big sister wearing clothes she has now inherited. It is amazing what memories the photos prompt from them, even from times when they were quite young. Leafing through the album of my older daughter’s birth was also an excellent way of preparing her for the arrival of her new brother or sister, familiarising her with all the people, events and paraphernalia involved in a new baby.

Over the last few months, we should have accumulated a whole pile of photos for this year’s album. Spring is always a burst of activity after the winter months. Visiting the newborn spring lambs on the children’s farm. Going to the lifeboat open day and taking a boat trip around the harbour. Our traditional Easter trip to the UK, the girls being spoilt rotten by their grandparents while we have a welcome weekend of freedom. King’s Day, with sports games at school, and, on the day itself, crowds of people dressed up in orange enjoying market stalls and live music. As the weather grew warmer, there would have been the first scout camps, our girls excitedly packing up their sleeping bags and mats for a weekend of fun with their friends. My partner’s work trip to America, my weekend away in the Ardennes with the scouting volunteers, my sister’s conference here in the Netherlands which would’ve given us the chance to go out together in Amsterdam. Our annual visit to the Efteling with friends, a fairy-tale theme park that is the one of the highlights of the year.

Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash

Despite all we have missed so far, we are going to miss far more in the weeks ahead. The big family get-together for my father’s 70th birthday, a rare and precious chance to get all our extended family in one place and have a really good catch-up. The school football tournament, the first year that my younger daughter could take part. Likewise the first year that she could gain a medal in the four-day walking event for schools, when the streets are lined with family and friends cheering the walkers on, marching bands play cheery music and the mayor shakes the participants’ hands. The whole programme of festivities for the 75th jubilee of our local scouting troop and the 100th jubilee of Dutch cub scouts in general. My younger daughter’s final swimming exam, which we’d promised to celebrate with a family trip to an indoor swimming ‘paradise’. And, on the horizon, not yet definitely scrapped but very much at risk: the summer holidays. The class trips and picnics to close the school year, family day trips and our big holiday to the US and Canada, three weeks packed with dramatic scenery, adventurous walks and belt-busting meals, which I now deeply regret insisting we book in plenty of time.

All of these experiences lost, and still we are incredibly lucky, compared to new fathers missing time with their babiesweddings being ruined, family members missing funerals and, worst of all, those who will not see the other side of lockdown.

“Lost, yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered for they are gone forever.”

Horace Mann

The corona lockdown has already stolen months of our precious time. It is a common saying that time is money, as if it is a tradeable commodity. But, unlike money, time can’t be repaid later. It is impossible to separate from the fabric of our existence. Every minute we lose, is a minute of our lives. We lose all those experiences that would have been the substance of our present and the memories of our future. It reminds me of a passage in one of my favourite books, that describes the grief of a character who lost her lover to another woman:

“She will never get any of those days back, including the ones she should have had but didn’t, days with Billy in them… It’s as if Zenia has crept into her house when she wasn’t there and torn the photos out of her photo album, the photo album she doesn’t possess except inside her head. In one single snatch and grab, Zenia stole both her future and her past”

Margaret Atwood, ‘The Robber Bride’

This sense of loss, of being robbed of part of my life, is how I feel right now.

Yet it is only half the picture. Because, while everything we planned has evaporated in smoke, we haven’t ceased to live. We have, in fact, still acquired a whole pile of photos for this year’s album – just totally different to the ones we expected. Documentation of the strange changes to the world around us, the warning signs hanging up everywhere, the distance markings on the floors, the shortages in the shops. Photos of our daughters skipping along on their bear hunt, pads and pencils in hand to keep count, and of the bears they spotted, small, large, cute, grumpy, each one a testimony to kind people reaching out to comfort others in some small way. Homeschooling, from science experiments that went wrong to teaching my daughters Scrabble. Screengrabs of zoom meetings with family, no substitute for seeing each other in person, yet we have spoken far more frequently than we ever would normally. Images of savouring delicious restaurant meals at our own dining table, the girls tucked up in bed, a quiet moment of peace for my partner and I. Scans of the artwork our children made to express their feelings, from drawings of corona monsters to an evocative painting of footsteps through a dark tunnel, entitled ‘Stepping out of corona together’ by my six-year-old. Before and after photos of the whole family after we could finally go to the hairdressers again to be shorn of our shaggy locks. Snapshots of our girls standing with joyful faces by the welcome banners when their school reopened, and bouncing up the sandy track in the woods to their first post-corona scout meeting.

These aren’t the photos, or the experiences, we would have chosen for this year. All the same, we have plenty to look back on, and while the memories aren’t entirely sweet, they aren’t entirely bitter either. I can see us now, many years in the future, sitting on our sofa looking through the album, and exclaiming at how strange and special 2020 was. I sincerely hope that we will also be able to say, as we close the album, ‘We never had a year like that before, and we’ve never had one like it since’. And that we will then return the album to its place in the cupboard, slotted in between albums full of more conventional happy memories.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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