The 5 Ps For When You Must Leave Include Photos

I’ve been thinking a lot about all my family and friends in Southern California where some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history continue to burn out of control. (Hopefully by the time you read this firefighters will have gained the upper hand.)  Fortunately, the flames have missed most of my family and friends, but last week, two of my dearest friends had to flee their home in the middle of the night.

At the time, theirs was a voluntary evacuation, although the threat has crept ever closer until the fire line is now only a little more than a mile from their home.  They tried to return to their house yesterday to gather a few more belongings but their attempts were thwarted when the main freeway was closed between where they are now staying and their home.

Photos taken of me by my father for our annual Christmas card are among those that I prize now and wouldn’t want to lose in the event of a natural disaster.

They grabbed what they could last week as they quickly abandoned their house.  Among the things that went with them, were their priceless family photo albums and the external hard drives on which they had stored their digital images.

This was on my mind because I’m obviously very concerned and worried for my friends but also because I had heard a television news item earlier last week about the “5 Ps” to take in case you have to evacuate.  Photographs was on the list, along with pets, personal papers, prescriptions and your personal computer.  In a year when this country has seen devastating fires, hurricanes and floods, too many Americans (including those in Puerto Rico where they are still struggling), have had to decide what to take when suddenly told to leave their home.

I have had only one instance in my life when this happened to me. That was the year the 6.7 Northridge earthquake rocked our neighborhood.  When the shaking stopped, we gathered our sons, carried them out to our front lawn and told them not to move while my husband and I went back into the house to collect some items. Plumes of smoke were rising into the air from a nearby fire. We decided to prepare for the worse, not knowing whether another quake would follow or whether the fire would move to our house, pushed by the Santa Ana winds predicted for that day, the same winds driving the terrible fires in Southern California now.

I hadn’t quite learned to sit up in time for my first Christmas as you can see here in this snapshot with my cousins. I particularly love the hand on the right coming in to catch my cousin in case he toppled over.

Among the things I considered essential, were my family’s photo albums and the portraits hanging on my walls. I carried out armful after armful, nearly filling the family van. One reason I could do this was because I kept the albums in one spot and stored the boxes of photos not yet in albums in one place.  This is something I still practice although I now have many more albums, along with the boxes and the photos still to be sorted from my parents’ home.  Some of the photos I couldn’t stand to lose are those from Christmases when I was a kid.

I first wrote about this after the devastating tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma in 2013.  What I said then still goes: nearly everything else, with the exception of family heirlooms, can be covered by insurance or replaced  when destroyed by disaster. But a family’s photographs are truly priceless and often irreplaceable.  I offered then some tips for keeping your photos safe and encourage you to go back for a reminder by clicking here.

Digital photography has made it easier in many ways to archive your precious images by uploading them to a ‘cloud’ storage service, or burning them to CD or storing them on external hard drives, hopefully you do at least two of these.  In addition, make prints of the images that mean the most to you because as wonderful and convenient as ‘cloud’ and digital storage is, there’s still no guarantee that these systems are fail proof. And keep your prints somewhere where you can easily grab them in the event you are ordered to evacuate.

My friends are safe, for now, hoping and waiting for the winds to die down, for fire fighters to gain ground and for the fiery monster approaching their home to be stopped. There is much they will lose if the flames aren’t extinguished, but along with the family pet, their prescriptions, their personal computer they have their family photos.  I hope others who also have had to head for higher ground in rising water, hunker down against a hurricane or run from engulfing fires this year also had the chance to grab their own family’s photos.

None of this matters, of course, if lives are at stake.  There are ways to reconstruct your photographic history if it comes to that, even prior to digital technology.  You may lose some of your most meaningful visual memories, but nothing surmounts the loss of life.

 

Holiday Card Delivers Childhood Memory

In case you missed it, December 7 was not only Pearl Harbor Day here in the States, it also is designated as National Letter Writing Day.  This was not something I knew either until I heard about it on a piece aired on National Public Radio.  I’m not sure who selected Pearl Harbor Day to be the same day as encouraging and celebrating people putting pen to paper. It’s not an official federal holiday (there are only 10 of those), but it’s a nice idea to recognize the value of what is rapidly becoming a lost art especially as the holiday season kicks off.

I refer of course to the annual holiday letter that comes (or came) enclosed with many of the holiday greeting cards that arrive.  To be sure, e-mail and social media outlets, particularly Facebook, have lessened the perceived need for a letter detailing the events of the previous year.  Some of my friends have simply moved their letters from the cards to their e-mail outbox although I still print them for myself once I have received one.

Bicycle Trio
My brother and I with Arlyne stop for a photo during a day of bicycle riding at our house.

I’m carrying on the tradition because there are those who don’t read or follow me on any sort of social media and also because I enjoy recalling for myself and setting it down for the record the activities, travels, life events of my year. This was called to my attention this week not only by the NPR article but also with the receipt of a brief holiday letter from my childhood friend, Arlyne, along with her Christmas card. Arlyne lived across the busy Main Street (also a highway) from the motel my parents owned and where we lived. We spent countless days together as playmates running back and forth across the street.

Fortunately, Arlyne’s card arrived early because she’s moved and I would have had no other way of knowing this. Tucked into her card were three postcards. I assume she came across these when moving (she’s had several rummage sales with more to come). The postcards were written to her by me when vacationing with my parents. I was particularly grateful for one of them because it was written (clearly by my mother but signed by me) on a trip to the Pacific Northwest in 1960.

The greeting card I received from my friend along with her holiday letter and my postcards.

“Dear Arlyne,” it began, “I went to Wash. Sat. & got to go on my uncle’s ship, the Coral Sea & ate dinner on it.  We were on it for 4 1/2 hours & still didn’t see everything. It is as long as 3 football fields & 20 stories high. There are 3,000 sailors on it. Got to ride on a Ferry for an hr. Love Cheryl”

Why this was such a treat to receive was because I have always remembered visiting that ship.  I particularly remember how terrifying small I felt next to the huge iron links of the anchor chain as we toured through that room. But I wasn’t certain exactly when my family visited the aircraft carrier and now that they are gone, I no longer had them to ask.  My uncle, who is still living and sailor-sharp for the most part, remembers our visit but couldn’t recall the exact year.

My uncle in uniform waves to us from the dock near his aircraft carrier, the Coral Sea.

It’s really not an important detail to anyone else but to me, but my friend Arlyne’s gift of an old postcard, validated my memory of that day and gave it a date.  That she still had this postcard after this many years and decided to send it on to me with her Christmas card and letter instead of tossing it out when she moved was truly fortunate for me.

Historians and biographers yearn for this sort of material when conducting research about their subjects.  But fewer and fewer of us are sitting down to actually write a letter, at the holidays or any other time. It’s  creating a crises of sorts.  As much as it is convenient and wonderful, electronic mail and social media (including blogs such as my own), are not proven to be permanent document of record.  Accepted in court proceedings as legal documents, yes, but whether they will last as records of history remains to be seen.  In the meantime, I’ll happily continue to send a holiday letter along with my greeting card and will welcome yours if you do so too!

On one of my many visits home to see my parents, I sat down with Arlyne at my parents dining table to show her something, photos probably, on my laptop. We still keep in touch every Christmas and on birthdays.