The fall rains have come. For over a week, it’s been gloomy with spates of downpours, spits of drizzles, and pelts of snow, weather which endlessly gnashes and frowns. It keeps me inside on a day I’d rather be outside enjoying the brilliant October foliage. It is a good day to take on the tasks I’ve been avoiding, one in particular that entails sorting through boxes of old photographs. They’ve sat in my studio since I painted the downstairs family room a year ago, taken from a large cabinet so I could move it. Old photographs can be so weighty.
I brace myself, gather my skirts, and plunge into our family's history, a history recorded in fading prints and blurry images reflective of my fading, blurry memories. Avoiding the task has only made it harder to get started, though. Where to begin? How does one decide to purge the glossies, dump the matts, and eliminate the prints of whatever (really?) seemed important at the time? I get stuck so easily in the past, remembering the day when…. Sigh. So many decisions, keep this, dump that. What is meaningful, not just to me now, but in the future to my children and grandchildren? These are more than photographs, they are documents.
I’m drawn to the old ones. I finger the black-and-white images of my grandmother’s home in Dayton, a fine, sturdy brick house. Every brick was formed and kilned on the farm, clay underlying the rich soil that gave my great-grandfather modest wealth and prominence amongst his peers. I study my grandmother’s family, the five siblings who grew up on that farm, and wonder if anyone else will appreciate the people who survived both world wars and the great depression with clamp-jawed determination. I admire these people. I honor them by keeping their photographs.
There are strays that have no provenance and I’m puzzled how I came to be in possession. I’m struck by a portrait of a young lady, done for her wedding engagement. She can’t be much older than seventeen. So pretty. She has a saucy, I-have-a-secret, mischievous smile. My grandmother’s handwriting on the back tells me she was the wife of my great-uncle Dan whom I remember, but I don’t remember her. The force of her personality, well-captured by the photographer, draws me in. I wish I could talk to her and find out more about her, but she’s long gone. There’s a story behind that pretty, knowing grin. Maybe she’ll tell me if I keep her around.
On to another box. Our children, now adults, are seen in grainy images that tell of growing up on our farm, the memories, and milestones that deserve archiving. I look at the ones taken at violin recitals, graduations, and athletic events, and remember my delight in their accomplishments. I look at birthdays and vacations and marvel at how quickly time has passed. One day, I will show these to my granddaughters. I shouldn’t wait too long, they won’t appreciate them when they pass through their teens. Ten seems a good age, old enough to be interested, young enough to wonder.
My discard pile grows.
I delve into photos of my husband’s childhood on our centennial farm where we raised our girls. The farm has changed, once dotted with dairy cows, now peppered with cherry trees. The barn that once housed the livestock is long gone, burned in a lightning strike in 1982. That was a sad day and I don’t care much to remember it.
Eventually, I uncover images of my own childhood, remembering how it was, pondering my unsmiling face. A Christmas portrait of absent, lost expressions, six children and two adults looking as if they were at a funeral. I think those of my husband’s family are better as they smile and seem to point the way forward in hopeful contentment.
I come to the ones of the animals that have enriched our lives, the kittens, the pups, and the horses. We’ve had some good ones. I melt to see the long-haired cat who lay on my stomach when I was in pain. How did he know where his purring would most soothe me? I smile at the Labrador retriever who protected our daughters when being ogled by unsavory men at the beach. She was a wonderful companion. My heart clenches at the ones of our beloved Bichon, my fast companion who looked up at me with imploring—if not adoring—eyes. We lost him in March and I yet grieve.
Piles upon piles. This pile goes. That pile stays—for now. So many prints. They have long gathered dust, sitting like books waiting to be read. They need to go in an album, but the task of sorting them by chronological order is overwhelming and I know I’ll invariably get dates mixed up. It probably matters less that they are in perfect progression than that they are archived in a protective sleeve. Over and over, I say, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Somehow, tomorrow hasn’t come and I’m not sure it ever will.
The simplicity of taking photographs on digital devices has eliminated the hassle of sorting, stacking, and slipping a four-by-six piece of paper into individual slots. Anyone who has a smartphone, and I daresay that’s pretty much everyone, appreciates the ease of editing some and deleting others. But I wonder what happens when I’m gone? Do the stories on my phone die with me? Who will scroll to remember or open the virtual albums? I screw up my face, realizing I have a whole lot more work ahead to archive the pictures onto a thumb drive. Okay, I know, there’s the ‘cloud’, but I don’t trust clouds—they disappoint with rain, snow, and sleet. This circles me back to rainy-day projects I’d just as soon keep putting off.
Even so, I make progress, feeling satisfied as the piles grow. The duplicate, the blurred, the badly faded, and the trite are dumped. The rest, I set aside to remember.
Helen Edwards Shoup, my great Uncle Dan's wife. Probably taken around 1916.