Images of youth - for $40

Inspired with New Year's resolve, I set about to de-junk the kitchen junk drawer. I dug down to unearth five disposable cameras, relics from the past year. What treasure they held was a mystery, as they'd been sent with kids on field trips and to summer camps with only the general admonition "Don't waste film." While developing the pictures had clearly not been a priority to this point, I was now curious to peek at these kid-picked prints.

"That's a lot of pictures," said the girl at the photo counter, after jolting me with a $40 developing charge. I reminded myself that I held in my hands a precious time capsule of my children's year.

Indeed, I'd forgotten that 11-year-old Eloise had been to YMCA camp over the Fourth of July - until I opened the first packet and found 17 pictures of fireworks (34 copies, with double prints). That is, I think they're fireworks. Each shot is a pea-size splotch of color against black sky.

There were four pictures of the rough-hewn rafters of the cabin. Eloise explained she'd been photographing a spider. There were a few shots of cabinmates, at close range: tongues, braces, and chewing gum. The single blurry picture of the lake was taken at dusk on a gray day, my budding Ansel Adams apparently on the run.

The next roll had been shot at home, on the trampoline, while jumping. Perhaps my son was attempting to photograph the sky at close range, or record the thrilling moment of descent to the black trampoline bed. It seemed he'd heard only the last two words of my three-word directive: "Don't waste film."

Roll No. 3 had gone on the third-grader's field trip to a destination we'll never know, as all shots were taken en route, on the bus. There was some variety: the backsides of bus seats and classmates' heads, and passing scenery (through a window, at 60 m.p.h.).

The fourth roll had been shot by our trenchant teen, to catalog the ways our house fails to meet her standards: water spots on the hall ceiling, a loose-hinged bathroom cabinet, peeling wallpaper in the study. She'd compiled what looked like 24 "before" shots for "This Old House."

"Oh, those?" she said airily when I fanned the photos before her. "I want to remember how not to live when I have a house of my own."

The fifth roll had several vibrant photos of the cat eating a bird. The photographer remains anonymous, in the witness-protection program.

I looked at the stack before me. Forty dollars' worth of Kodak moments, as captured by my trigger-happy camera crew. Their choices in subject matter have ironically recorded the nature of youth quite powerfully. I've considered presenting them in a photo album to my oldest when she at last acquires that much-fantasized house of her own, or perhaps as warning upon the birth of her first child.

For now, I've crammed them back into the kitchen drawer.

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