Saturday, September 14, 2019

Old photos - a sometimes blurry window on our world

When I was young we kept most of our photos in a big brown striped suitcase in our linen closet. We weren't big on photo albums as family, they existed for only certain occasions. Finding a photo meant digging through the big brown suitcase until you found the one you were looking for, plus twenty others you weren't. The brown suitcase went back East when my Mom moved to Connecticut, and after she died my sister in Portland became the keeper of the brown suitcase photos.

Along the way, I'm not sure how, but I came to have quite a few of the photos that technically belonged in the suitcase. I had a plan at one point to make an album for each of my four siblings of their family history, and I only got to my oldest brother Jim's project. That left me with lots of odds and ends of old family photos, going back to my Dad's family in Sweden. Lots of really amazing pictures of people who we're are related to, we just don't know exactly how. The women all have incredibly long wavy hair, so that might throw a wrench in the belief that they're blood relations. Other family photos contain well-dressed people at holiday parties, and other occasions, some quite mundane. People have come a long way, and unfortunately they are now traveling in yoga pants.

While my fashion sense has changed over the years too, my history of keeping photos organized can be summed up in two words. Hit and Miss. While I have several epic trips documented in amazing detail, and I'd created albums for the first seven years of our marriage, the remaining 21 years plus all the family photos I had went into photo boxes.

Photo boxes are a procrastinator's best friend, or enemy, depending on what you're focusing on. If hiding things away in a pleasant and stackable manner is the goal, they are great. If what you're looking for is your photos stored in a way you can find them, the more boxes you buy, the less likely you'll ever find that precious picture you're searching for.

Our photo organization, or lack of it, came to a head this past month. It's a whole other post I'm not ready to compose, but this summer while in Romania we received the news that my brother Jim was very ill. Upon our return, we were able to spend a few intense but very meaningful days with him before he passed away. With plans for a celebration of life in the works, my sister-in-law asked us for some photos of our family, with photos of young Jim in particular.

Out came the boxes and the photo shuffling started. Of course I couldn't find the ones I was looking for, who could in all those boxes of mixed-up photos? Old Swedish relatives, school photos, letters from my Grandma, get well cards, sympathy cards, camping trip after camping trip and way too many photos of the Pudgy Years, before we became plant-based. For every third photo there was a duplicate, even the really bad blurry ones.

I did my best to go through them all, and I found some family pictures I didn't even know I had. But to really do this right, we had to get rid of our couches. Yes, the couches had to go and here's why.

While sitting down one night contemplating life, I got the sense that our big green couch and love seat were not producing one spark of joy in me. We got them used, they were now even more used, they were too big for the room, they were losing their ability to properly hold up a human form in a comfortable manner and they were emanating the smell of Golden Retriever. Our friend Dan was over for dinner and without much thought I had Dan and Ernst move the couches to the garage. That weekend they went bye-bye via Craigslist.

What does this have to do with photos? Well, we moved the futon from the guest room into the living room as a temporary solution for the missing couches, and then grabbed the IKEA chairs from the tv room to add more seating. That made the rug look like it needed cleaning so it got one. Then the table in the corner looked out of place and bulky so we moved it to the tv room. All this furniture moving gave me a nice wide open space in the guest room to really tackle the photo project. Thank you big green couches, you really did serve us well until you didn't.

On a folding table in the guest room with no bed, I set out every single thing that contained photos or memories. This was the project I never got to when we Konmaried the house a few years ago. The amount didn't seem too daunting, then I remembered my husband must have some more to add. Yes he did, and at that point we had ourselves a photo-declutter-a-rama. Boxes and boxes, framed photos that had been packed away, lots of photo albums with those awful sticky backed pages with shiny plastic film, the ones that were so easy to overload with really bad blurry photos of people with their eyes closed and someone's finger halfway across the lens.

Why did we save so many of these photos? Because those were the days you paid for film, took photos hoping you got the right shot, so you took a few just in case and then you brought them to be developed and you paid for the prints - only to see closed eyes, blurry images and someone's finger halfway across the lens. We saved them because there were no do-overs. The moment had passed and all you had left was the really bad photo. So you put them in your sticky albums. And a funny thing happened. You forgave the photos for being of poor quality and you came to adore them. You didn't see the flaws, you saw the memory. And that's why it's so hard to part with these, they are old flawed friends and you can't just toss them away without a bit of guilt.

There was no way I was going to make chronological sense of any of these. This project isn't for passing down memories to generations to come, this is for us. It's so we can find that special photo when we need to. It's so we can toss the scenery photos and concentrate on the people pictures. I know what Half Dome looks like and I don't need a shot of it from 2004, but I do want that photo of our friends from Germany standing with the amazing granite peak in the background. OK, maybe we can toss the one where all four of them have their eyes closed, but that good one is a keeper!

Instead of by year, we separated them by categories. Places we've lived, friends from each place, dogs we've owned, kids we've known and loved, weddings (even the ones which ended in divorce because it's history) and many many trips. Lots and lots of people photos, and when you're looking at ten photos of a couple or family who mean a lot to you, it's easier to find a few good ones that flatter everyone if not most. If not, then we kept the blurry closed eyes photo. It's a reminder of simpler times.

While we aren't pared down as much as I would like to be, the mountain of photo boxes is now of a reasonable size. I know where all the photos of my brother Jim are, and that's very comforting. I have little tabs separating the categories of our life. The pictures of my childhood dogs are no longer barking up against that trip to Frankfurt, and New York photos aren't bobbing for space with trips to Apple Hill. It's not picture perfect, but I'm calling it almost there. Once we get the picture table down we can get the guest room back in order and bring in a new couch. I'll be sure to post some photos.

First these had to go.

And temporary items were borrowed from other rooms.

Which opened up this spot for a photo table.

Eeks, found more!

Things got delayed with a plumbing problem.

Had to take a photo of that.

The photo I was searching for that started this whole thing.
My brother Jim with his puppy Bantu and my puppy Holly.

Things got serious.

And I found more treasures.

It got a bit better.

Using the game table in the tv room was a home run.

Categories. We have categories.

Whittled down to this, plus some boxes of memories.
And a few albums.
Was it worth it?

When you rediscover that photo of your friend standing on the Twin Towers...

...and that trip to Windows on the World where I ate sushi for the first time?
Even some of the "Why Did I Save This?" photos were worth saving after all.