A good snapshot, the late Southern writer Eudora Welty tells us, keeps a moment from running away.
Take a close look at the photograph above. Three children in pajamas by the hearth. The oldest has just turned 5. A sister, 3, sits at his side; her favorite doll rests on her knee. The youngest, a girl not quite 2, cranes her neck toward the glow of the fireplace.
When I look at that photo, it evokes a memory in me, the little girl says today, a fascination that, Wow, is Santa really coming down the chimney?
The moment stays fixed in Kelton family lore. But it touches something in all of us.
All the best Christmas Eves are flush with promise and possibilities. Here the Keltons are forever young. The kids are happy and safe. Within the borders of a 4-inch, black-and-white square, none of that will ever change.
Fifty-two years ago, Mary Kelton, her sister Cissy and her big brother David sat by that fireplace for what would become their familys annual Christmas card photo. Their parents, Paula and John, had sent cards since 1954, but this one from 1960, when the family lived in a rented home in downtown Davidson, was the Keltons first made-from-scratch effort.
John hung a flashlight in the fireplace, and then he and Paula told the kids that Santa could appear at any moment. Mary believed them.
John got the shot on his first click.
Magic that lives on
A carol, a scene in the right movie, even a bad sweater can flip the switch on the strands of Christmas memories in our heads.
In my house, the sign that Christmas had truly started was a pot of my mothers oxtail soup, sitting on a brick step in a freezing garage, waiting for sons and guests to arrive.
For the Keltons, it is a lifetime of holiday photographs that theyve saved and shared. The 1960 shot remains their favorite.
Paula, now 83, comes across the original print as she pages through a scrapbook. It is showing its age perforated edges, deepening shadows, a corner droops like a small tattered ear.
She reaches into its plastic sleeve and straightens out the crease.
She studies her children, and says something that mothers have been saying for 2,000 years: When a child is born, you just hope.
All of hers, David, Cissy and Mary, turned out so differently, and she says they all seem happy.
It is her youngest, Mary Bridges, who seems to have the strongest ties to that long-ago moment by the hearth.
I look at the children in that photograph, and one of them is me, she says. I had no idea then that Id be 53 years old one day. I never knew that I would still cherish a photo 50-something years later. Theres some kind of magic about that, too.
Back in 1960, Paula even entered it in the Observers annual holiday photo contest. It didnt win, but the editors at the time broke protocol and returned it, feeling that the photo appeared too valuable to throw away. The Keltons entered it again in another Observer contest this year.
The Keltons havent had a full Christmas reunion for a decade, not since John and Paula moved into the Pines, a Davidson retirement center, where they live today. But family photographs still send their shared memories flying back and forth, each a reminder to keep those moments close.
Our lives have gone by. Its fast. Its quick, Mary says. But its not complete. Were all still here. Were all still together.
This Christmas, not all of us have our loved ones around. But we see their reflections in the ornaments, hear their voices in the songs, feel their presence in all the family traditions that come out of storage at this time of year.
That means theyre in our Christmas memories, too.
And, if were lucky, none of those will ever run away.