It’s a job almost everyone plans to do, yet few of us get to it amidst the busyness of life. Or, sometimes, lethargy sets in, and a person just can’t force herself/himself to take the first step in an undeniably difficult, daunting task. And so it’s passed on to the next person in the family line, whether a child, a grandchild, or, as in my case, a younger sibling.
Thus, after my beloved older-and-only sister’s death last fall, the job of sorting out my family’s pictures and documents has fallen to me. I’ve lost count of the number of boxes she sent to me in the past few years, but their contents fill a filing cabinet and several other boxes and drawers. More recently, her friend and estate executor sent me about twenty more large Priority Mail boxes filled with photos and slides. As with the file drawers where I crammed those unread documents years ago, those boxes have sat unopened beside my desk for several months. (At left are my file cabinets and only a few of the boxes I’ve been working on.)
Finally, I began to climb the mountain. Surprisingly, it isn’t as hard as I’d anticipated. The key is thinking more about the coming generation than of my own memories. How can I give them just enough family history to treasure rather than a pile of “stuff” they couldn’t care less about?
No doubt most families have a stash of such items. In our case, our sweet mother kept things like elementary school report cards and library reading lists dating back to the 1940s. Just last week, I learned this fun fact: While World War II was raging in other parts of the world, my eldest brother attended second grade at Mark Twain School in Sedalia, Missouri, and read Let’s Take Turns and Children of the Past. He earned straight A’s in all of his classes. (He’s always been the smartest of us four kids.) Another fun fact gleaned from Mother’s 1951-52 blood donor card is that she had type 0 positive blood. Guess she’s the one from whom I inherited that blood type.
Mother also kept pictures of her mother and other relatives. What fun to look at pictures from the 1890s! At right is an 1899 picture of my maternal grandmother (1875-1979) and her two brothers. Some pics have names on the back. Others don’t. Some names are unfamiliar to my two brothers and me. Try as I might, I can’t recall all of the stories our grandmother told about her relatives, so I can’t even figure out these people’s identities. Yet it’s so hard to throw away even the most unfamiliar “face.” Again, I have to think about future generations. Would anyone want these pics? My sister had no children of her own, but she was a doting aunt to her many nieces and nephews down through four generations. Surely someone would like to have her prom picture. She was so beautiful in her gold gown, black velvet cape, and elbow-length white gloves.
Our family’s pictorial treasures have an added element that makes the number of pictures quite numerous. Our father was an amateur photographer from his early teens, so I’m now the proud owner of many years’ worth of his “artwork.” When he joined the U. S. Navy in 1918 at the end of World War I, he took countless pictures around the world, including one of a shipboard ceremony that “christened” anyone crossing the Equator for the first time. After being initiated with his own dunking in the South Atlantic, he snapped this picture. In the picture above left, you can see King Neptune on the left. Another group of faded black and white photos show the aftermath of an earthquake somewhere in either Central America or the South Seas islands. Those will be hard for me to get rid of because they document Dad’s wide travels during his Navy days. But with no captions giving dates and locations, of what value or interest are they to anyone?
Eventually, after working as a machinist for many years, Dad became a professional photographer. I can track his improving talent through his countless b&w pictures. However, my favorites date from the time he began to photograph in color: weddings, graduations, studio portraits, amazing scenic pictures of the Colorado Rockies, many family pictures. In the 1960s and 70s, he served as the official photographer of the Ski-Hi Stampede in Monte Vista, Colorado. One of his best pictures of a bucking Brahma bull with rider hanging on for dear life appeared in the National Geographic Magazine. Speaking of “dear life,” Dad would risk his own by getting right down into the arena during these dangerous events so he could get the best action shots! If I save that Brahma bull picture (which is on a slide, so I can’t show it to you), I’ll have to caption it so my grandchildren will know what a crazy-brave man their great-granddad was.
This picture of my husband and me with our four children, taken in my dad’s studio, is a bit faded with time and not well reproduced by my iPhone snapshot, but it shows his exceptional work.
Every once in a while, I come across something that takes me back in time and makes me laugh or cry. As I turned over one picture that perfectly captured my mother’s sweet spirit, my grief over missing her stopped me. How I wish I could hug her one more time. I want my children and grandchildren to know what a good, loving woman they are descended from. That picture is a keeper.
I’ve made my way though most of the pictures, managing somehow to throw away more than I kept. Now I must move on to the slides. Two Priority boxes probably contain more pics than all the rest put together. Fortunately, I have a slide viewer to make it quick and easy to see what’s on them without dragging out the ancient slide projector, which may or may not still work.
If you have a stash of family photos, do yourself and your descendants a favor. Start now to weed out the duplicates and ditch the ones that have no meaning to those who come after you. My plan, should the Lord grant me the time and the emotional “oomph,” is to digitize most of my pictures and organize them so my children and grandchildren can quickly find the ones they want to copy and keep.
One more important note: Be sure you label everything. Your dear Uncle George may be well known to your whole clan for his great jokes at family reunions. But two generations from now, your descendants may not have a clue who the guy is with the lampshade on his head and why he was so beloved by your family.
As for me, I’m trying to spend just an hour a day working on those slides. After that, it’s on to those many documents that need sorting. I’d appreciate your prayers that I can finish the job for the sake of coming generations in my family.