Secrets of the Big Manila Envelope

I recently came into possession of some round-edged, matte-finished snapshots from the Pleistocene era. My sister Colleen found the doozies (we’ll call them vintage shots) and packed them into a great big manila envelope.

Next stop: memory lane.

I love a bit of nostalgia, and the manila envelope didn’t disappoint. What a hoot to see pictures of my parents at roughly the age I am now. They look just as preoccupied with the humdrum things of life. Like me, they could use a good nap.

It’s a timely reminder that I’m not the first to travel this road. 

I got a chuckle out of seeing my grownup sisters and brother the way they used to be. They all have good jobs now—pillars of their communities. But I knew them when their pajamas didn’t match. Even when we’re all old and toothless I’ll still see them as I did when we were all young and our mouths were full of braces.

The envelope showed me familiar faces I hadn’t seen in years. I’ve lost track of some old friends, sad to say. We all do. Some old friends have lost track of me, too. It’s much easier to stay connected these days, yet it seems harder to make real connections. Why is that?

Not everything in the envelope was cause for happy reflection. For some reason I’d always thought of myself as a cute kid. Boy was I wrong.

Far from the dashing Catholic columnist you’re used to, the seven-year old Matt was a comically grotesque, gap-toothed kid who didn’t quite know how to smile. His hand-me-down wardrobe looks to have been handed down from the Partridge family.

It’s tough to accept: I was a disco-era Howdy Doody.

I wouldn’t trade the manila envelope, as shocking as its contents were. I’m grateful to have that Kodacolor record of my childhood. It’s a peculiar joy to shuffle through a pile of fading Polaroids. Clicking or swiping on a screen isn’t quite the same.

I wonder: will my kids ever get a great big manila envelope like that? Doubt it.

Then again, the envelope was definitely a blow to the ego. The questions it raised haunted me for several days. Eventually I arrived at the following hypothesis: The big manila envelope was God’s way of reminding me to take care of some fundamentals.

First—be humble. Someone who spent his early years looking like a baked potato with a bowl-cut should never put too much stock in personal appearances.

Second—don’t forget where you came from. The people in those pictures loved you no matter what you looked like. They still do. They always will.

And third—for Pete’s sake, when someone takes your picture, just smile. It doesn’t cost a thing

The envelope contained another lesson. Photographs distort memories. That happy Christmas spent in the warm and safe embrace of my loving family isn’t ruined by the pimply picture of me in the Mark Bavaro jersey. That was a great day, one that should—and does—live forever in my heart. If I’d never seen the snapshot, the memory would have stayed pristine.

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but those words may not be worth the paper they’re printed on.


From the September 2015 issue of Fairfield County Catholic

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