Early last month, I made a weekend trip to visit my cousins in neighboring Oregon and to help celebrate my aunt’s birthday. I packed just enough clothing for a couple of days. And I took along some of the old family photograph albums that had been at my parent’s home until my father passed away this past spring. My Dad had designated me to be the family ‘historian’ I guess and placed me in charge of sorting through all the photograph albums, movies and slides that they had accumulated through the years.
I had already begun this process during the many visits to see my parents in recent years. Since I was on West Coast time, I was often awake long after my parents retired for the night. I’d sit in my Dad’s recliner chair in the family room with a pile of loose photos on my lap. While watching a movie, I’d slip them into albums. I knew that one of the things that my mother, who had dementia, could still enjoy was looking through the old family photos. Until the onset of her disability, my mother had put together the photo albums and had taken care to label many of them, especially the ones from her childhood and youth, on the reverse side.
Some nights, instead of assembling an album, I’d pull out one of the older albums. I handled them delicately because the black or faded yellow paper scrapbook pages, to which the photos were affixed with little black corners, were pretty brittle. Carefully, I’d turn through the pages, reviewing my family history and becoming acquainted with the faces and events that belonged to my relatives generations before me. It was like stepping into my own personal time capsule. Their stories unfolded as I gently lifted the individual prints out of their spot to read what had been written on the back.
Captions such as “Clara and Hulda Lonberg. Made in Doling Park Springfield, Mo. about 1912” or “Lonberg Family Reunion” gave me clues to the time and place of the photo. It was not information that had much bearing on the history of things at large, and yet, these simple people did help to shape a country in their coming from their original homeland to settle here, to work and build homes, farms, businesses, schools and churches and, most importantly, to raise a family.
I carried with me to my cousins some of these books of collected visual memories to share with them. They had probably not seen many, if any, of these photographs, I guessed, because they had seldom visited my parents’ home in Kansas and when they did, I doubted that the albums had ever come out. Or, if they did, a long time had since passed.
Late one evening, after the littlest family members had gone to bed and the guys were in the family room talking about football, I sat down at the kitchen table with my cousin and my aunt and opened one of the books I had brought. It was like story-time in kindergarten class. My cousin was captivated by the people I paraded past her as I turned the pages. She was thrilled because in one of the albums that once belonged to another aunt who had died a few years earlier were snapshots taken at my cousin’s own parents’ wedding. She had never seen them.
My aunt, her mother, who was sitting beside us smiled as she remembered that important day. Tears welled in her eyes as she recognized her sisters and brothers with whom she had grown up. We broke into laughter when a photo prompted a memory about something silly that one of them had done.
For two hours, we turned through those fragile pages, asked questions of my aunt, read the snippets of information recorded, and studied the people and places preserved in the photos. The time passed quickly and left us tired–it was well after midnight–but wanting to see and know more. I promised to scan and share them all with my cousins, and to give to them the originals of the photos that were of their mother so that one day, they could sit down, as we had that night, and relate to their own grandchildren the history that is ours.
PostScript: I have since started a group on Facebook for both sides of my family and have systematically been placing the old family photos in them as I scan them. We also now have an album in Dropbox dedicated for that purpose. The only ones with access to them are our family members who can download, save and print them for themselves. You might want to consider doing something similar for your own family. But with hacking incidents such as the most recent one involving the iCloud, I’d still recommend making prints of all your most precious family photos.