Getting the family photos in order is one of those things nearly everybody talks about doing and hardly anybody does until propelled by some event -- such as a Christmas reunion, or a serious illness that makes us suddenly aware that time is slipping away and taking the family memory with it.
So it was that my mother and I sat together for most of a week, sorting, identifying and organizing nearly a century's accumulation of pictures.
One by one, names I had heard most of my life were being put to faces I'd never seen: Uncle Sam Daniel, my grandfather's brother, stern and purposeful in a doughboy uniform; my great-grandparents, who died before I was born; Great-Uncle Arthur and Aunt Elizabeth, who had feather beds and a stereopticon -- the first of either I had ever seen. Funny, I'd forgotten that. Their eyes stared out clear and steady across the years, and gradually a link began to form in that fuzzy chain that tells us who we are and where we came from.
It was curious how few of the older photos I recalled having seen -- like one of my parents, young and proud, in the front seat of an obviously new Model T. Over the years the pictures had been squirreled away in envelopes and shoeboxes and drawers and closet corners. Several times they had nearly been destroyed in moves and housecleanings. Now Mother, the oldest of the surviving nine children, has possession.
Still they weren't safe. She pores over each one now, remembering things that we will never know about; but as she struggles to hold on to her memories, she has also misplaced the pictures several times, and they are getting frayed from handling.
They will not be safe, we know, until they are organized and stored and have meaning for future generations. First priority had to be noting who they were and where they fit in the family. Sometimes the names came easily; others had to be dredged up slowly after several tries. We shared an unspoken sense of urgency, and I began to regret all the years I had promised to help get it organized and didn't, while the number of photos grew.
Finally, we sorted them by generation, then by family branch and, last, chronologically within branches. The next step was simple -- or so we thought: We got a bunch of albums of varying quality and began assigning the sections to albums.
Fortunately, many of the oldest did not fit the albums and are still in boxes, for we've since learned that if we want truly long-term preservation -- like generations -- we have to consider the type of paper or plastic we use. Acid paper products and certain types of plastic may eventually destroy the image. Acid-free mounts and storage systems are available from many camera stores, along with a wide variety of refillable albums.
It will be months before the photos are all mounted, remounted and lettered, and three generations will be involved in the project, but it has begun.
As my son and I packed up to return home, we discussed getting started on the 25 years of snapshots of our branch of the family, now stashed in envelopes, shoeboxes and drawers.
Maybe we can do it over Christmas when the older ones are home from college. We can share the fun and the memories and firm the link to who we are and where we came from.