What do you do with your old family pictures and letters? Are they carefully stored in albums? Do you take them out from time to time and reminisce? Or are they stashed in drawers or boxes, envelopes or a trunk in the attic?
My family’s stash was, frankly, out of sight and out of mind most of the time…until the day about six years ago when a bathroom pipe burst in my grandmother’s bedroom, gushing water to such an extent that my mother, two rooms over, saw it pouring out when she “just happened” to glance in that direction.
She had a lot to be thankful for – she was home at the time, a neighbor was available to help her turn off the water, the carpet didn’t need replacing – something that would have been particularly challenging as my grandmother was bedridden. But one thing that made us both sick at heart was that a box containing old family photos had been on the bedroom floor when that pipe burst…and a pile of them on the bottom were lost.
I was particularly upset when I thought that one I especially valued, of the great-grandmother I was named for, hadn’t survived the flood, not to mention mad at myself for not taking the time to frame it before then. When it turned out a little later that the photo survived, it felt like a gift. And when my brother said of the remaining pile, “You should scan those,” I agreed. I didn’t want to take a chance on losing any more memories to plumbing mishaps, or worse.
So I began sorting. And sorting. And sorting.
And could hardly believe that one family (okay, five branches of it) could have accumulated such a voluminous record. I’ve passed the 400 mark, possibly even 500, considering that some were duplicates, a few were damaged, and I still have at least one bag and a scrapbook to go through, not to mention another bag full of people whose identities are a mystery.
How photography has changed since those pictures were taken, or even in just the last decade. Gone are my days of dropping off rolls of film or a disposable camera at the local drugstore, the tedium of waiting to see if and how they “came out.” Of course there was always a dud or two in the developed bunch, but I was still a holdout when my brother gave me a digital camera for my birthday. You see, I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of, well, no paper. No glossy photos to carefully slide into albums? No film? That was just strange. Or so I thought until I realized how nice it was to click away those shaky exposures and bad angles…and how many pictures would that memory card hold? Geez, more than I’d ever take in my lifetime…
My long ago relatives could never have dreamed of digital cameras and memory cards, or emailing a likeness with their telephone. Is that why they took so many photographs? Most of them have held up longer than those I took with the modern “pocket” camera I received as a high school graduation gift. The archive process has extended over months as I’ve picked and discarded, scanned and saved and labeled, and sometimes it’s gotten downright wearisome. More than once I’ve wondered if I should have bothered to start: I have no children or grandchildren to bequeath them to. Will my cousins’ children and grandchildren know or care who they were? Or will they someday end up in an album at a flea market, a forgotten relic of people who were once important to someone but whose names are no longer remembered?
Yet I had to do it. In case of another flood, or a fire, or any kind of disaster. I couldn’t help feeling that these people, at least half of whom are now gone and some of whom didn’t live to meet me, deserved more respect. “Just get them all in one place,” I told myself, over and over. “A safe place. Then if nobody wants them, okay. But at least they’re preserved…” For something.
What I naively didn’t anticipate was how this sometimes tedious process would also prove emotional. My eyes would sting without warning as I studied flapper, dapper relatives, secure (or so they seem!) in their youth and good looks, posing beside cars Bonnie and Clyde might have driven…or the teenage girl with her ultra-modern bobbed haircut, perusing Camera Craft magazine, never dreaming she wouldn’t see her seventeenth birthday because tuberculosis would claim her, the girl who would have been my great-aunt but instead appears later in a New Mexico sanitarium, bundled in a bathrobe and holding a cat. Did she suspect by that time what her mother, against a doctor’s advice, refused to reveal?
There’s my auburn-haired, hazel-eyed grandmother, looking as if she belonged on the set of “The Great Gatsby” where she’d shortly kick up her heels in the Charleston. I’m glad she couldn’t know then that she’d spend her last years as frail invalid, dependent on others for the most intimate care. How she must have loved to pose for the camera, because there are more early pictures of her than anyone else.
Then there’s my great-aunt and uncle….married secretly when she was only 16, her wedding ring hidden in a drawer until my grandmother found it. I never quite understood why she was so disappointed with her only sibling, having added a year to her own age when she impulsively eloped at seventeen. Her father wanted to follow Grandma and her new husband with a shotgun but was talked into sense by the sheriff. She was a Daddy’s girl, but he remained upset enough over the marriage to not even speak to my grandfather until their first child was born.
My parents on their wedding day, Dad with that George Clooney twinkle in his eye as they pose by their cake. I remember how he told five-year-old me, with the utmost seriousness, that he “wiped the tears” from my mom’s eyes that day. (Decades later his bride informed me, “Your daddy was the one who was crying!”) I’d like to go back in time, tell my dad, “Stop smoking! If you don’t you’ll die at 45, leaving a widow and two teenage children.” But all I can do is gaze at that black-and-white wedding party, imagine what they were thinking and feeling, wishing I could have somehow witnessed that moment.
More riffling through bags reveals my mother in her childhood front yard, costumed as a fairy. My uncle costumed as a robin. For what? My Confederate ancestor Lorenzo, white-haired and dignified, who tried to join the Army three times before he was finally successful. Fourteen was too young even then.
My paternal grandmother…another teenage bride: “The last time my mother spanked me was on my wedding day.” A mom at fifteen. Survivor of an alcoholic first marriage, the premature deaths of both her children, then her only sibling. Later she would lose part of her left leg due to a blood clot and slip into a three-day coma. Not knowing what I would hear on the other end of the line, I telephoned her hospital room, and when she answered, nearly dropped the phone in my astonishment. “How are you?” I blurted.
Said my still indomitable Grandma: “Well, I ain’t jumpin’ no high fences yet.”
So many stories in so many faces. But it’s the unidentified ones who drive me crazy. I want to tell everyone I know, “Write it down! Write down the stories, the names. Someone, someday, will thank you for it – guaranteed!” But even after I’ve carefully documented what I can, who will remember them when my brother and I, both childless, are gone? Will it even still matter? Will anyone read the corny valentines, the pre-wedding cards and telegrams scattered among the many photos? The letter from a proud father to his daughter on her birthday, the old newspaper clippings?
Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter – I’m in too deep, and there’s still that need to gather, organize, preserve…and remember.
At least for now.
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How about you? Do you have special stories and photos that you plan to pass on to the next generation? I’d like to hear about them. Feel free to share!