A Personal Essay: A Memory

Hi everyone! I wrote a personal essay for my nonfiction class. The premise is each section describes a photograph. Thanks for reading!

A Memory

Date: June 15th, 2014
Location: The London Eye, England, United Kingdom

The first plane ride without my parents brought me on my inaugural trip to Europe. I had never traveled without my family before, and now I was preparing for Semester at Sea, which embarked from London. Before boarding the British Airways flight, my mom had slipped me a card reading, “We are so proud of you.” For what, I wasn’t sure.

I had landed in London after a night of drinking vodka cranberries on the plane. I touched down in the thick fog at 5:00 in the morning, London time. It had been too early to check into the hotel, so my friend and I dropped off our suitcases behind the front desk and stepped outside, forgetting the new rain jacket my mom had bought me. I knew nothing about London, even anything as basic as weather.

Still, I was hell-bent on seeing what each city had to offer, starting with London. Despite my weariness, I took a double decker bus to the London Eye to watch the sunrise.  

As the Eye hovered with Big Ben centered in the background, I asked a stranger to take a picture of me. The sun was just starting to fight through heavy clouds. A couple in the same pod as me was bursting open a bottle of champagne.

“Excuse me,” I started, already handing over my new camera. “Can you get a picture of me?”

“Sure. Good for you traveling alone!”

I didn’t answer. In this photo, my eyes are bordered with dark purple circles. Still, my smile is genuine. I had worn the compass bracelet my mom had secured on my wrist before leaving the country. I looked wan and tired, but my eyes were hopeful.

Date: June 16th, 2014
Location: Southampton, England, United Kingdom

The clouds were starting to part during my next day in the UK.

I stood on the lido deck of the MV Explorer, the cruise ship that was taking me around ten new countries in sixty-three days. Semester at Sea would be my new home afloat.

In this picture, I am wearing a new jacket I’d purchased in a London gift shop.

The sign behind me reads, “The World is Our Campus.”

The dark circles under my eye persisted from early mornings and jet lag. The ocean behind me was silver and calm.

I was posing with a group of girls I’d met just minutes before when a man I’d later learn was a professor offered to take our picture. My arms are looped around a blond girl that I didn’t know would I would become close to.

I had no idea what I was in for.

Date: June 21st, 2014
Location: Hardanger Fjord, Norway

There aren’t words to describe the Norway fjords. No metaphor does them justice.

In the background of this photograph, there is a family of dolphins splashing behind me. I was posed on a small ferry boat, taking me from one island to another. The water was an impossible shade of turquoise that morning, after the sun had burst through the clouds.

My smile was all encompassing, a grin controlling my entire face. Sunglasses hid my eyes, but I know they were smiling, too.

When I showed this picture to my family a month later, my dad was the first to comment.

“Beautiful,” he said. “The view is nice, too.”

Date: June 26th, 2014
Location: The Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland

The fog had been impossible that day.

After the three hour bus ride from Dublin, I was confronted with disappointment.

My eyes were teary in this photograph. I had been looking forward to seeing the majestic cliffs.

I had reached my hands out into the fog. I couldn’t see them in front of me.

My friend taking the picture had tried to calm me down.

“It’s okay, Mary. You can come back and see the Cliffs one day. You’ll just have to come back to Ireland.”

Of course, she was right. 

Date: May 5th, 2015
Location: Elon University, Belk Library, North Carolina

There were happy tears in the making of this picture.

I had been studying for a philosophy exam when I had gotten the news. A year of studying, applications, and essay writing had paid off.

I had been holding a printed out email. The insignia read, “Trinity College Dublin. School of English.”

I gestured to the guy in the cubicle next to me.

“Excuse me. Can you take a picture of me? This is a really big day.”

I would be returning to Ireland.

I called my mom, while sitting on the silent floor of the library. I couldn’t hold in the excitement much longer.

“I got into Trinity!”

“I am so proud of you, Mary.”

This time, I understood why.

Date: September 20th, 2015
Location: Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland

I do not know if I necessarily believe in God, but I was certain a higher power had sent that glorious day to me. The sun was forceful and bright.

I stood at the very edge of the Atlantic. The sea was a dark shade of cobalt, juxtaposed by grassy cliffs the color of Christmas trees.

The Cliffs of Moher had been positioned in front of me, my back to the person taking the picture. I am looking at the Cliffs in this photograph, staring from a distance.

I couldn’t bring myself to look away.

Date: May 6th, 2016
Location: Dingle, Ireland

My Irish boyfriend and I had smiles that dominated our entire faces. We were riding a ferry boat through the harbor to see the local celebrity, Fungi the dolphin.

Before taking the picture, he had tightened his jacket around me.

“To keep you warm,” he said, holding me safe and steady. He sneaked a kiss when the other passengers weren’t looking.

I had gestured to the man sitting across from us.

“Sorry. Can you get a picture of us?”

I made the decision not to take any pictures of Fungi. Instead, I held Michael’s hand, and committed the day to memory.

A year later, and the photograph is framed by my bed.

Date: August 9th, 2016
Location: Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport, Georgia

My mom and I were walking laps in the international terminal, waiting for my boyfriend’s arrival. The laps were intended to calm me down.

“So, are you going to run to him? Kiss him in front of everyone?”

“Mom. Nothing like that.”

He had managed to slip by me while I was talking. I had missed his grand entrance.

I tapped on his shoulder while he stood in line at the baggage claim. He hadn’t seen me sneak from behind. I smelled his familiar scent for the first time in three months.

“Hi. Fancy seeing you here.”

My mom had been standing a few feet away and snapped a picture of that first hug. Its my favorite picture, by far. 

Date: December 14th, 2016
Location: Dublin, Ireland

Days before getting on a plane to Ireland for Christmas, University College Dublin had sent me the most joyous of Christmas gifts.

I had bulldozed my way through the other passengers to get off the plane first. I hadn’t seen my man in four months.

After passing through the immigration to the arrivals gate, I spotted him. He held up a sign that said, “Sheehan.” His voice was gentler in person than I remembered, his tone soft and kind.

I handed him a Christmas card. Inside was my graduate school acceptance letter.

Next fall, I am moving to Dublin.

In this picture, we are smiling, arms around each other in the lights of the cafe we had one of our first dates in. He was wearing the shirt that he’d later given me for Christmas. Despite fourteen hours of travel, my eyes are bright and happy.

I am home.

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