Annie Dillard is one of my favorite authors. I first read An American Childhood during my undergraduate capstone in American Studies and have read all of her works in the 20 years since. Her imaginative and understated words seem to always speak my interior thoughts in ways I cannot. A less well-known work of hers, The Maytrees, takes place on the craggy coastline of Cape Cod. While this part of the country is dear to me, it was Dillard’s meditations on the difficulty of time and age that reached me most. On watching her only son, Pete, come into manhood, she wrote:

How she wished she could see all those displaced Petes and Peties once more! She imagined joining picnic tables outside by the beach and setting them for 22 Peties and Petes, or 122, or however greedy she was that day and however divisible Pete. Together the sons at every age and size – scented with diaper, formula on rubber nipples, salt-soaked sand, bike grease, wax crayon, beer, manila, engine oil, fish – waited for dinner. Who else knew what each liked? It was a hell of a long table. She gave herself a minute to watch them – Petie after Petie barefoot near his future self and past. They pinched or teased or shoved one another. All but the babies ignored the babies. What mother would not want to see her kids again?

When I first read this passage, my son Finnegan was only ten years old, but I could feel the tug of Dillard’s words. The image of serving so many Finnegans and Finns mashed peas and grilled cheese sandwiches and mattar paneer was seared into my memory, and as he has grown, I have added more Finns to the table.

I have set out to create eighteen photo albums, 2004-2022. It’s a daunting task – and one that is now unique to parents of children born around the turn of the century. In less than two decades my husband and I have evolved from shoeboxes of prints and negatives to external hard drives of digitals, to thousands of photos in the cloud. The irony of finally printing those photos into physical albums is not lost on me. The scanning, debugging, transferring, sorting, and tagging have amassed just over 34,000. If Dillard was greedy to visualize 122 Petes, imagine my 34,000 Finns.

And I see them all. Finnegan has his mother’s love of frequent hairstyle changes, so it’s fun to see a Precious Moments haircut on Finnegan (2) slowly morph to buzz cut Finnegan (8), shifting again to blue-locked Finn (14), finally resting at shaggy blonde surfer boy (18). I can imagine all these boys, each one needing something different from his mother, not just of dietary choice, but of my care, patience, and counsel. For me, this is the essence of Dillard’s passage: when we look back at a child’s life, we are also watching our capacity for love grow, shift, adapt, and change. Because for every Finn there was a Lindsay, transforming from a tender-hearted young mother, to an adventurous playmate, to a (somewhat) wise confidante. Just like Dillard’s character, I never sat at the picnic of childhood, but I set its table every night.

This, I think, is what makes this image, and my feelings on the verge of an empty nest, sentimental but not sad. It’s an acknowledgement of the shifts that two people, parent and child, have shared in the process of growing up – a bond that can’t be broken by rites of passage. The simple yet profound interplay between a child’s needs and a mother’s unique capacity to fulfill them persists beyond distance and age.

In this tender moment, I am assured that although 2023’s photo album may not feature him as extensively, Finn (19) will still take his place at the table. I will be ready to serve a bowl of risotto topped with a poached egg, just the way he likes it.

Lindsay Connors is Strategy Director at Beck & Stone where she leads institutional clients in strategic consulting and brand tactics. She is a resident of Fort Collins, CO.