My first camera was an Olympus Mju II Zoom 80. Technically, I inherited it. My father bought it for his mother so she could document her travels and show her favorite moments to her family on the occasions we would all get together. She was a globetrotter and had visited Kenya multiple times with her husband. But after he died, she became more homebound and only went places when her children took her. So, when her son gave her the Olympus, she refused the gift. She must have not seen any point in photographing whatever fond memories were still to come. Maybe because she doubted they would ever be as intimate as they were with my grandfather.
My grandparents were not rich. My grandfather, a young Hungarian, fled his home country during the revolution of 1956 and entered Switzerland as a refugee. My grandmother was voluntarily serving in the army as part of the women’s aid service program at that time. When he arrived at the Swiss border on December 5, she was the one who took care of him at the military’s support camp. It must have been love at first sight. They got engaged after one month and married less than a year after their first encounter. My father was born nine months later.
I cannot say whether my grandparents were spontaneous, even though their love story might imply so. Looking at the photos inside old family albums they were social and somewhat outgoing but never fluttery or jittery. I think they were affable and organized, at least those are the traits my grandmother retained even in her senility. They were also thrifty, like many who had experienced the Second World War.
My grandfather, who had been imprisoned in Recsk, Hungary from 1949 to 1953 under the accusation of endangering the socialist regime, knew how to live off of nothing. My grandmother, who had to share her family’s food stamps with four younger siblings, was good at rationing. They retained those traits after the war. So maybe my grandmother refused that Olympus out of practicality. Perhaps it was too decadent.
It sure was not the first time that she had rejected a gift, but to my father it must have felt different this time. It is one thing to decline an object. Refusing to document your memories is something completely different – especially when you are getting older. But aging in our family brings along quite an annoying trait: stubbornness. And my father is just as affected by it as my grandmother was. Anything new is usually met with skepticism and critique. Change is evil, or at least dangerous, and spontaneity is fanatical. And so when my father decided to give his mother a brand new camera he must have unintentionally opened Pandora’s box. I don’t remember the discussion between the two stubborn people that was held back then, I was simply too young. But I can envision it thanks to similar, more recent, antics. It ended with him returning home, the new Olympus still boxed and in his hands.
I am not quite sure when I got the Olympus from my father, but it must have been on some special occasion. perhaps he gave it to me before we went on vacation in hopes of keeping me occupied. I do remember snapping my first photos in Budapest. We went there pretty often and still do so to visit Hungarian relatives. Most of my images from back then are blurry, and one even features my finger. But there is also a lovely portrait of my mother and a picture I shot of the reflection in a window showing my father. Those were simpler times.
My grandmother died this year, in the midst of a pandemic. Though she wasn’t aware of the turmoil the pandemic caused around the world, those last months were still tough on her. She had stopped eating and drinking, and was becoming thinner and weaker by the day. But whenever she saw family there was a subtle glow in her eyes that comforted us all. She still recognized us, said goodbye to everyone and eventually fell asleep on August 8.
I was in her apartment last month. My aunt had already cleaned up most of the rooms and my father and I just came to see if there was anything left we wanted to keep for ourselves. Everything was pretty empty besides my grandmother’s office. I decided to bring home the large bookshelf and the old desk my grandfather had made himself. As I sorted out the most personal books to keep, I stumbled across some photo albums. There was one dedicated to my grandfather’s family with images going back to the very beginning of the twentieth century. My grandmother had put it together meticulously.
Then there was another one with images from Kenya, where my grandparents had gone multiple times, not just for vacation. They had met a doctor down there who was in need of money to run his clinic. My father told me his parents had supported this enterprise multiple times. They also paid for driving lessons and the cab license of another young man once, and on another occasion helped to build a well in a small village. There were stories hidden in these albums that I had never heard before.
As I removed some classical records from the bookshelf I was reminded of my grandmother’s passion for the opera. She always wanted to become a great opera singer and had pursued that career until an illness shattered her dream while still young. In the end, she had to compromise but continued singing in several church choirs. Perhaps she had simply decided to devote all her love to music. There was no time left for taking pictures. That could be the reason why she had refused the camera. After all, I too stopped playing my saxophone after deepening my knowledge of photography.
After successfully stowing the furniture into the truck I went back into the apartment one last time. It was even emptier now. Soft light coming from the clouded sky caressed the white floor tiles, and looking out the window I could see the foliage that was starting to fall off the trees. My father watered the plants on the balcony. I pulled out the Olympus from my jacket pocket. Through the entrance door I could see into my grandmother’s office. I pressed the shutter button. Off to the right was the bedroom, where there was no more bed. A rollator, a lamp, and not much more. I pressed the shutter button again.
As the flash went off I thought about all the pictures my grandmother could have taken with this camera. Most of the family albums I had just found were filled with images her children had shot. Maybe if she had accepted this little gift, I would be looking at different albums these days. Maybe if she had accepted this little gift, I would not be photographing as much as I am.
I wonder why my grandmother chose not to photograph. Being a photography aficionado myself, someone who can’t imagine not making pictures, that is a facet of her character I will probably never understand. But trying to do so might be beneficial. Nowadays I cannot think of her without remembering the story of how this Olympus Mju ended up in my hands. I wonder who my father wanted her to photograph for, and ultimately for whom I am doing so.
This little point and shoot is how it all started. It is almost paradoxical. It began with someone actively choosing not to photograph and now, there is only one way for me to show my gratitude for this gift. I have to keep shooting with it.
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