My mother died in 1999 at age 96 leaving 20-plus photo albums besides all the notes taken on her trips, notes on every book she ever read and on all the countless classes she attended. All the latter I could toss, but the photo albums have been staring at me these past eight years, until on my last trip to London to visit my son, I packed them all so he could help me decide which photos he wants for the generations to come. We did the deed.
As he leafed through the disintegrating pages and the fading pictures, he put Post-its on the ones he wanted. Then it was up to me to pull out these, as well as ones for my daughter and brother and various cousins whose faces appear among many unfamiliar ones.
The early pictures had these little corners holding them down, then came the double-sided scotch tape which made the photos tear unless we used a knife, and finally the easy ones to pry out with the plastic sheets covering each page.
The photos from the ‘20s and ‘30s: sepia, posed stiffly for the photographer in proper clothes, and unsmiling faces. The ‘40s: in black-and-white, small-format glossies with tiny, unrecognizable people taken with early cameras that unfurled like accordions. By the ‘50s, we had color and decent portraits.
How interested would the grandchildren be? My grandson remembers my mother, but how meaningful are the photos of her parents? The strange man with the handlebar mustache, the woman with hair piled high, with ever-more distance from their eventual great-grandchildren. Is all this keeping alive of ancestors worth the effort? I look at them in wonderment, looking for a similarity to me or my children and not finding any. My nostalgia begins with my own children, so dear when tiny, so cute growing up, I miss those years when I look at these people, taller than I, who don’t really want my advice; of course, it’s because they know better ...
The choice of settings also has changed-then, photos were taken mostly on trips, endless beaches and snowy mountains. It’s either old-fashioned bathing suits or long, wooden skis. There are shots of horseback riders with the appropriate jodhpurs or golfers with knickers and cleated shoes. Later, the backgrounds change to more exotic fares: Chinese Buddhas, Egyptian pyramids, the Yangtze, the Nile, the Amazon, leaning towers, blue icebergs, vine-encrusted temples in the heart of Cambodia, poor villages with naked, black children or Aborigines with kangaroos.
It’s either that or more homescapes, the living room, the kitchen, the backyard with children splashing in the inflated wading pool.
My mother at 13, my daughter at 13, my granddaughter at 13, perhaps I should put these next to each other instead of chronologically. We compare my son at 18 and my grandson at 18 - we marveled - it is the same face.
There are several options on what to do with all these photos. Some people swear by DVD’s - one can send them to all the relatives, but I fear you look at them once and that is it. Placed into photo albums is the usual choice, but it’s tedious work. And finally, the option I will choose, oversized shoeboxes from photo stores with cardboard dividers by years - just be sure to write on the back who, when and where.
And yet, there it is, the silent witnesses of a life well-lived, of children grown into good adults, of MBAs and PhDs, of homegrown teachers, lawyers, doctors and engineers, of failures, survivals and triumphs.
A whole lifetime - no regrets!