We are 14 and 16, my big sister and me, halfway up the California coast with our parents when she snaps the photo: two nuns, habits swirling in the Bay breeze, gazing out at a hint of the Golden Gate. Idle beside them stand two vintage tourist viewfinders, made useless by impenetrable fog. Maybe, like us, the sisters are furnishing from memory all the familiar, invisible landmarks: the iconic red suspension bridge we’ve just driven across, an expanse of green water, San Francisco like a child’s block city in the distance. We make this family road trip every year, and if we’re disappointed in the view this time, there’s always next summer.
Except this time, there isn’t. We cross some final bridge come September, my freshman and her senior year of high school. The next summer brings college plans for her and a first job for me, and with every summer after that, the bay widens between childhood and the unfamiliar territory of adulthood. Years later, she sends me a watercolor version of the photo, and I’m instantly 14 again, the fog-cloaked Bay a symbol for my future-in-the-past: a strangely familiar unknown still lying ahead of me.
Seventeen years have passed since we took that trip. The painting hangs on the wall of the house I share with my husband. Several hundred miles to the south, my sister and her husband are raising two lively little boys. When I look at the painting, my mind furnishes the blank wall of fog with everything that has happened since. I see the girls we were, dizzy with ambition. Ahead of us, I see travel and struggle, the work we would each fight for and learn from. I see the darkness that would mark us, and the love that would shape us.
I guess I get a little nostalgic when I look at the painting, with all of that living behind us. We’ll never again be 14 and 16, slightly bored and either fighting or ignoring each other in the back of the family minivan. Our lives are widely different, distant, and moving too rapidly for us to capture in photos. So when we catch up between work and errands, I cast a wider frame around the picture: Oh Lord, maker of our futures, writer of our pasts. Hold onto everything for us. Let none of this be lost.