Nearly three years ago, several large Rubbermaid bins filled with photo albums, loose photos, pictures in envelopes, boxes and tins made the move along with my mother from Milwaukee to Fitchburg. As time and energy allows, I am sorting through these photos – some of them from several generations before hers. Though it slows my progress a bit, Momma enjoys flipping through the photos and “helping” me sort them too.
Photos of mom’s childhood and early adult years will sometimes prompt a story or two. Alzheimer’s keeps her from remembering the name of the city where she had lived for the past 60 years, or even what she had for lunch, but she can remember the names of aunts and uncles she hasn’t seen in years, along with a few of the details of events from her childhood.
Sadly, even the memory of her marriage of 53 years to my Dad is getting fuzzy. One thing will bring him back to her memory: a photo album. Our family gifted my parents with a special album commemorating their 50th wedding anniversary. Our daughter took upon herself the challenge of sorting through photos and memorabilia from her grandparents’ wedding and lovingly created a beautiful keepsake album for them. We wrote special letters to them and included those too. They were clearly touched by all the love that went into putting the album together for them. Even now, ten years after Dad moved to heaven, little bits and pieces of her memories with dad come back to life as she flips through its lovely pages. Mom loves to page through it with her caregivers and guests who come to visit, sometimes sharing a vivid memory – other times just a glimmer.
This very special anniversary album serves as a reminder to me of the importance of somehow preserving family stories. I’ve been dragging my feet these past four years trying to make more progress on getting the photos into albums. I could use the excuse that I have a lot on my plate in caring for my mom, but the truth is, I find the disorganized volume of photos more than a little overwhelming.
The Christmas Gift
Our daughter Beth asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year. It’s a question that’s getting harder to answer. I’m old enough now that there’s not much I really want or need, but I put a few things on my Amazon gift list anyway. After a little more thought, I told her what I would really love. Remembering what a nice job she did on the anniversary album, and admiring how she has systematically put 17 years of her own family photos into attractive albums, I told her I would love to have her spend time with me helping me with my daunting photo project.
I’m so grateful my daughter was delighted to grant my wish.
Her gift would be to help me get those photos and memories into simple albums in the same manner which she has used in creating her own family albums. No fancy-schmancy scrapbooking techniques or expensive bric-a-brac page decorations. Just simple white pages with photos mounted on black.
My job in this project would be to sort through the photos and try to figure out which ones to include in the album. I would start the album with the best photos I have of my great-grandparents, then work my way up the family line, journaling whatever information I have about the photos on the pages.
The Picture Purge
I’ve decided I cannot keep all of these photos. Before we can get them into albums, we have to assess what we have to work with. Here are the general guidelines I used to decide which photos had to go. Having a decisive, minimalist as a daughter came in handy when making hard decisions.
- Ditch or rehome the duplicates. I have come to the conclusion that my parents always ordered two sets of photos. As I find duplicates, I’m keeping the best one of the two and tossing the other one. If I think another family member may enjoy that particular photo, I put it in an envelope with their name and address. Later, I’ll mail them the photos along with a personal greeting.
- Out with vacation and scenery photos. I love knowing my parents enjoyed traveling together in their retirement years. The pictures and countless postcards are lovely, but they are of no sentimental value to me. As my mother’s memories fade, they no longer hold meaning for her either. As hard as it is to throw away a piece of their history, I decided I must. Dad’s photo of a beautiful Hawaiian flower is truly gorgeous, but it goes. If I should ever visit Hawaii in my lifetime, I reasoned, I can take my own flower photos (but will probably not print them).
- GOOD photos only. I saved all GOOD photos of my parents. That means I parted with the ones of them looking like hot and sweaty tourists, or pictures of them eating food (Dad had a propensity for taking pictures of people who were feeding their faces), and other less than flattering photos.
- Nix the fuzzy photos. With rare exceptions, fuzzy photos were a no-brainer automatic toss.
- No embarrassing photos. Naked baby and other less than flattering (or downright embarrassing) photos were likewise dumped. There’s really no reason to perpetuate this “memory” to generations to come who may thumb through the albums.
Put dates and names on those photos, folks.
My next project was to get the photos into date order and identify people and places in the photographs. Thankfully, Mom had started putting photos into date order shortly after my dad died. She had set up a little workstation in the basement where she worked backwards from the present. It was a good start, but there was so much left to do.
- I created “Year” tabs for a photo box and then began sorting pictures behind those tabs. I tried not to over-think it. If I found a photo with a date marked on it, I used it as a benchmark for other undated photos from the same general time-frame.
- Mom’s sister Carolyn, and their youngest cousin Theresa, are the family genealogy buffs on my mom’s side of the family. Their love for genealogy and family history make them wonderful resources for family information. They have helped me identify people in photos and have even shared digital images that I don’t have so that I can include them in the album as well.
- Every now and again, Facebook comes in handy. Whenever I post a scanned image of a family photo on my page, I know I will soon have fun learning bits and pieces of our family story. Mom’s family will chime in with their first-hand accounts and personal memories of some of the images. As I journal in the album about the photos, I will include some of that information.
This Christmas gift gives me joy on so many levels.
- It will be enjoyed so very much by my mother as she turns its pages, conjuring up older memories still stored up.
- It will get treasured family photos out of storage and safely preserve them as a keepsake to be enjoyed for years to come.
- Just as important, this gift will continue to tell the “story” of my family for the generations that follow.