You know how sometimes the threads of your life all come together for a moment sometimes? I’m having that kind of week.

I was fortunate to have been chosen to guest post on the White House Project’s blog last week about how scrapbooking gives us a voice – in many ways a historical voice. We scrapbookers are the diarists of our times; we write the first rough draft of our own histories.

But sometimes things go astray. This post from the Library of Congress got me thinking about my own experience at my mother’s house in NY this summer.

Things Change

My mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and we moved her to an apartment in order to keep a closer eye on her. I went and spent a week with my sister cleaning out what we could (on the hottest week of the summer!) and going through things deciding what to keep and what to let go. The photos were the hardest.

I knew I had to get them out of the house. As my mother’s memory goes, she doesn’t remember who the people are in the photos and tends to want to throw them away. So I planned to put some in albums for her (where they’re harder to throw away) and some on the walls (same reason) and the rest I was going to bring home to scan so that my sister and I can each have copies.

But I didn’t count on Grandpa Bill.

A Little Boy in a Sailor Suit

Bill was my mother’s “boyfriend” (can you call a 90 year old man that?) of 20-some years. He was 20 years older than she, and had a whole life of experiences before he met her. We found that life (including evidence of a first marriage we’d not known about!) in a box or two in his darkroom.

He had photos from his years on a destroyer in WWII, photos from his childhood, photos from his (what we thought was) first marriage. Like so many of us do, he had haphazardly labeled them. A few first names, the occasional year, sometimes the occasion was noted. But sadly, since we didn’t know him back then, it all meant nothing to us. We were able to figure out which woman must have been his mother, but that’s about it.

And now the question was… what do we do with these photos? Pictures of people we’ve never known, people we’re not related to, in places we can’t identify?

It seemed unimaginable to think about throwing them away. But what do you do? He had no other family, his ex-wife is over 90 years old and in a home. They never had children.

It’s profoundly sad to think that beyond our memories, this man’s life will be consigned to time.

So I saved what made sense. I saved everything to do with his ship and buddies, and will see if I can find someone else who served on the ship who might want them. I saved photos where we could identify where they were taken, and will contact the local historical society to see if they would like them. I saved enough to ‘tell his story’ and will make a book for my mother for Christmas, including his childhood and war years photos.

The rest will be passed on to an ephemera dealer and hopefully will find a home with someone who will use them to make art, or put them to some other good use.

My Turn to Tell

What have I learned from this?

Telling the story matters. You can tag, add metadata, write on the back in pencil, whatever… but if you don’t tell the whole story, the photos are not as valuable. Imagine if we had the stories to go with those photos – the tale of the summer picnic in the park when mom’s sister came in from New Jersey, the story about the guys he bunked with in boot camp. All those photos would be much more worth saving to us.

It has even inspired me to scrap my own story more. I found a lot of my childhood photos (can you find me in the image above?) and I plan to scrap them soon. I want to tell stories for my children and their children so that those photos will have meaning to them!

Have you had to deal with old family photos? How do you ensure that they’ll be meaningful to future generations?

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  1. Stefanie says:

    I can sooooo relate to this. I’m the keeper of all the family photos, and I have an entire large manilla envelope labeled, “Who the Heck Are These People?” My Mom is still alive, at 99, and her memory is sharp. But even these are people she doesn’t know, and my Dad has passed away and isn’t here to share his memories of who these people might be.

    Our family photos are notoriously poorly labeled. Actually, I have found that my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1878, did the best job of labeling the photos of her cousins, and adding a few pertinent details.

    That’s one of the reasons I scrap, and why I do so many heritage layouts. I want my children to know who the heck THESE people are, and what there story is.

  2. PatriciaD says:

    Great article/post. And so very true. Photos don’t mean diddly without the story that goes with them…JOURNAL those pages and photos. Sure you know NOW but what about when you don’t…

  3. Beckygtx says:

    My grandmother was a hair dresser all of her life. She died at age 91 and left pictures of her clients at all times, her dogs – lots of her dogs – and neighbors and people I never knew who they were. Yep, they are slowly ending up in the trash. Especially the dogs. Sad but true. I took a ton to my Dad in the nursing home before he died but he did not know most of them either. I need to get back to those and purge!

  4. Chari says:

    LOVE this post! I am horrible at journaling! Great inspiration!

  5. […] page – even if it is “who, what, when & where.” and here is the WHY. I read “Where Old Photos Go to Die” at Scrappers Workshop and it hit me. THIS is why I scrapbook. THIS is why I keep asking people to […]

  6. Peggy says:

    I so relate to this. So much so, that I’m sharing with my friends!

  7. Jennifer says:

    This is so true. I want to do better. I really do. Its just that sometimes I feel like I am saying the same thing over and over and over. I need to find a way to get more info in and be creative enough to not say the same things 5,000 times.

  8. Linsey says:

    Great post! I work for a website that helps you tell your story and ensures your most meaningful memories live on for future generations of your family. I will be referencing your experience in a blog, if you don’t mind. Thanks for sharing your story!

  9. […] is a great blog post from a woman who accidentally inherited a lifetime of photos belonging to her grandma’s late […]

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