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.
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?