Since I was a little girl, I’ve taken what I call “mental snapshots” of moments that I want to remember. I almost always carry a camera now, but back before digital cameras became ubiquitous, I hardly ever had one handy when something significant was going down. I still take mental snapshots when I feel that scrambling through my 5-bedroom purse to dig out a camera will kill the mood that I so badly want to capture.

The story I usually tell when I’m trying to explain my cerebral photography is about an image I snapped on my 25th birthday. I was riding a beach cruiser at night just east of the main strip through downtown Key West. I could still hear the racket from Duval Street as I rode down an unlit street past perfect little Key West Bungalows trimmed in white and nestled in palm trees and climbing vines. At the edge of the neighborhood where the wall of vegetation and houses ended, I saw the light of an enormous full moon sparkling on the ocean’s surface between black silhouettes of tiny homemade houseboats tied off at the pier. I stopped my bike and made a conscious effort to etch the picture into my memory along with a narrative that captured the significance of the occasion.

My family never took vacations when I was a kid. Time off work for my dad was usually spent patching the roof, re-sealing the toilet, or fixing any one of 100 things that my three siblings and I managed to break. The most decadent vacations were spent with relatives in Alabama, Tennessee or Georgia – reroofing their house or fixing their leaky toilets. The Key West vacation was my first time going somewhere besides a relative’s house just to do something fun. I had my first real job that paid enough to afford a vacation and I had no real responsibilities to speak of. All of that – the memories of dad’s working “vacations,” the memory of a first job, and a brief moment of complete freedom – is the caption for the Moon Over Key West photo.

This Christmas, I took plenty of actual photos. Since my husband’s been deployed, I have done my best to photo-document all the big events on his behalf. But even though I had the camera handy this Christmas, there were a few things that I missed with the Nikon that I caught only with mental snappies.

Mental Photo #1: A box of Nestle Quick Chocolate Mix – yeah, the one with the goofy bunny on it – laying on a pile of presents.

The Nestle’s Quick was itself a present. We have fourteen first cousins on my husband’s side of the family, and this year was the first year that most of them were old enough to manage their gift buying/creating on their own. We, the mothers, were happy to let the responsibility fall on their little shoulders. And happily sipping Tequila during the free-for-all gift exchange, we, the mothers, were delighted to see what they had come up with.

My seven year old did all of his shopping in one of those gumball machines that has little toys in it. The mothers were very impressed at his time saving strategy, for his gifts did not need to be boxed or wrapped; they came packaged in decorative, two-toned, plastic balls that open with a festive “pop.”

Kudos, little man. Well done.

The chocolate mix was from the next older cousin, Karl, a nine-year-old, and the youngest of four. He is a chocolate milk FIEND and probably could not imagine a greater gift; a whole can of Quick that doesn’t even have to be shared or used sparingly. The caption for the picture of the can of Quick is the story of our children growing into generous adults who were excited to do something nice for the people they love without any help from the parents.

Mental Photo #2: Little Sara with half of her bottom left front tooth missing

We have a family tradition to wage an “Air Soft Pellet Battle of the Cousins” the day after Christmas. We all wear protective eye goggles, turtlenecks, hats, long sleeves, and long pants. Next year we will probably wear mouth gear as well. The caption for the photo of little Sara is written in the same font that the surgeon general uses to note his warning on cigarette packages.

Mental Photo #3: My son, the gumball machine shopper, carefully folding his pocketknife and putting it back in his pocket.

It’s usually dad’s job, but this year, Vic handled the tape cutting on all the boxes that could not be opened sans a sharpened steel blade. I was reluctant at first when he offered to be the designated cutter, but he insisted that he knew how to do it. And he did. He cut away from his body, the way he was taught to do. And after each job, he carefully folded the knife and put it back in his pocket – not on the table, or on the floor, or someplace where it could be lost or grabbed by the baby, but back in his pocket; just like dad.

The caption for that photo, I hope, will be the account of the last Christmas that my husband wasn’t home to celebrate with us, and how much our kids grew and changed in one short but relentless year.


About Donna Hesterman

Mom, wife, Marine, science teacher, science writer.
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