A very lucky guy

One winter when I was a student, I spent quite a bit of time in the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) Preschool taking pictures. The director of the preschool was in the final stages of preparing a manuscript for publication and thy were seeking a few images for the book. My wife, Susan, was working at the preschool and I had just completed a class with the magazine and book photographer Archie Lieberman. As opposed to the semester when I was a student observer in the CTS Preschool, I was given access to the school with the only responsibility of making pictures while not interrupting the play of the children or the leadership of the teachers. The illustrations were to be black and white, so I was working with fast film and no flash. A flash can distract the children and disrupt the normal flow of school activities. The desired photographs were of the children doing their normal activities. No pictures were to be set up or staged. I would go to the school with a single camera with only one lens, a 105mm portrait lens.

Not long ago I scanned several of the photographs from that era, transferring the film prints to a digital format that could be stored on the computer. The children, who are in their late 40’s or early 50’s now, and the activities of the preschool have been renewed in my memory as I went through the photographs.

Yesterday, I remembered the feeling and the process as I followed around our four grandchildren. The children had a brief visit when all four were together back in 2019 when our youngest was 3 months old. He was decidedly easier to photograph in those days. His mother would lay him on a blanket on the floor and he would stay right there, not even rolling over from his back. He doesn’t spent much time in one place if his eyes are open these days. Yesterday, however, I was having a grand time taking photos as the children played. I also had time to marvel at the abilities of my wife and daughter. They both have extensive experience as preschool teachers and are very good at keeping the children engaged. I was nearly breathless following children from the back yard where they were chasing a soccer ball back into the house, where they made a lot of trips up and down the stairs. There was a time when the children helped make sugar cookies for an upcoming family Valentines/birthday celebration. Keeping track of keeping hands clean, managing a rolling pin and cookie cutters and containing the mess of sugar sprinkles requires quick action by the adults. Granted, only two of our grandchildren are still preschoolers. The oldest is 10 and quite capable at helping provide some care for his siblings and cousins. The 6-year-old is gentle and patient with the younger kids as well.

I was using a photographic technique that I learned in my days as a preschool photographer: take three or four frames in rapid succession. My equipment is better these days. There have been many advances in camera technology. I can actually shoot up to seven frames a second with my current camera. However, that is only necessary for stop action such as sports or some wildlife photography. With the kids, I slow it down to about one frame per second. The first “click” of the camera gets their attention and they look up, often directly at the camera. The second and third clicks yield the photograph I’m after. Capturing four children in the same frame all with their eyes open and none making a silly face is a rare treat. I’m a bit out of practice and I didn’t produce very many photographs yesterday, but I had fun trying.

Ours was a nearly ideal situation. We had four adults for four children. Any one of us could have safely supervised all four children for a short amount of time. Our daughter-in-law manages to keep up with three of them while keeping house and managing the chickens and garden and home schooling. She was with us for the afternoon. Our son was at work. As the community librarian he had to make a presentation at the City Council meeting in the evening and he was busy preparing for that meeting.

I couldn’t help but marvel at the way the adults were working together as a seamless team, stepping in where needed and still having time to enjoy each other and a bit of adult conversation.

Back in the preschool days, I was amazed at my wife’s ease with the children and her ability to stay one step ahead of the action. It was evident yesterday that she hasn’t lost her touch. In the span of an afternoon visit she found time to get down on the floor to play with the children, run with them in the back yard, help them make cookies, teach our ten-year-old a new card game, clean up several spills, and so much more. And she was enjoying it all. She is the one who came up with the idea of making cookies on the day after our daughter and grandson arrived as they were adjusting to the change in time zones and the cousins were excited about the reunion.

As we sat down for an early supper so the cousins could get home and to bed on schedule for another busy day today, I felt like I must be the luckiest guy in the world. I absolutely love it when we fill all of the chairs around our dining room table. I love the chatter of the children. I am amazed at how much food a ten year old can eat! I am so proud of the adults our children have become and the families they are nurturing. I will never get tired of being called papa and grandpa. Hearing our daughter call me daddy is music to my ears.

With layer upon layer of memories and the joys of the present I still have a bit of energy left over to imagine the future. Being an elder gives one a unique perspective on time, one I didn’t have decades ago as I took pictures in the preschool. Those were good days, but I don’t want to go back. These too are precious days.

If I were a poet, I’d write a hymn of praise.

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