In honour of Preservation Week (at least it is in the U.S., though we should have such a thing in Canada too; we have Heritage Day in February, but it’s pretty low-key), I am taking a short diversion from the series about self-publishing to talk about another issue close to my personal and professional heart: preserving family photos, letters, and other physical and non-physical memories.
A few years after my grandmother died — the last of my four grandparents to pass away — I was at my mom’s house one day and was surprised to see my grandma’s photo albums stacked on the floor. My uncle had been storing them at his house ever since Grandma’s apartment had been cleaned out, so I was curious about why they were now at my mom’s.
I had always loved paging through my grandma’s albums. Although I’m sure they were once orderly and chronological, over the years she had tucked newer photos, newspaper clippings, and other little papers in and among older photos wherever she could find space. The result was this hodgepodge of faded and creased black and white photos adjacent to crisper contemporary pictures; yellowed clippings from the 1950s side by side with something that had caught her eye forty years later.
I loved the flurry of it all, the conversations that her more recent memories were having with her older ones. And the pages were just so her. Without her ever thinking of herself in this way, she was the curator of that gallery of an album.
Without her ever thinking of herself in this way, [my grandma] was the curator of that gallery of an album.
So imagine my dismay when I opened the album to see blank spaces and empty photo corners where pictures had once been. “What happened to Grandma’s albums?!” I shouted out to my mom. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Who had done this?
My mom couldn’t understand what I was so fussed about. She explained that the album had been going around from one of her siblings to the next, and each was taking whatever photos they wanted to keep. She was one of the last to look through the album. “Go ahead and take whatever you want,” she said.
I was speechless as I turned the pages. It was like someone had ransacked a museum, leaving behind only a few studies and sketches among the empty frames and bare picture hooks that were now the only other remnants of a one-of-a-kind collection.
I had actually borrowed and scanned most of the photos several years before while creating a family history book, so I still have access to many of the images themselves:
The one of my grandfather on the deck of the ship that carried him from Europe to Canada in 1924; someone, my uncle presumably, had written “Dad” on it with an arrow pointing to my grandpa.
The one of my grandparents in front of their new car, the laugh on my grandmother’s face seeming to express how all of the hard work of establishing a farm on the prairies and raising eight children was all bearing fruit; that life was somehow getting a bit easier.
I can pass these images on to my son or share them with others in my family, but in reprint they will never carry the historic weight they had in their original as part of a collection.
In the next post, I will explore further thoughts about this and share a few ideas for how families can protect and share these heirlooms of the everyday.