All the furniture is gone,
the old woman’s gathered residue
in the yellowed absence of aged
frames, yawning forth in shafts of sunlight;
even in their present state
of stark, outlined blankness,
the space seems to whisper ancestral names,
otherwise gone unknown
to a revolving string of renters
who will laugh and cry
and wash their dishes
in her sink—the cracked one
the Super promised to replace,
procrastinating every week
right up until she died.
Soon, no one will know of her existence
within the confines of these walls.
Even her children’s children, having
long ago lost touch,
solely consumed (as youth tends to be),
with forging their own bonds,
rent space in other people’s hearts,
work to shape their unique variations on the same
themes of life and love that she once had,
unbound by their grandmother’s perspectives,
unaware of her hopes and dreams,
talents and idiosyncrasies that,
for better or worse,
fashioned their ability to be.
Yet, no matter how little attention they pay,
her blood still flows through their veins,
scattering further across the continents;
her wind-blown essence dipping again and again
into the gene pools
Tomorrow, the tired curl
of her tiny, corner, wall-papered haunt
will be unceremoniously stripped
and bleached with a fresh coat of paint
in the subtle hues of the lofty dreams
the new family requested.
They will never know nor think
to ask about the crack
in the sink, or how it got there
(although, they too, will soon complain).
Nor, will they wonder about the old woman
who took her last breath alone
beneath the pictures
of even lesser known ancestors,
who weren’t always dead,
or old, but rather,
who, back when their own lives
were freshly unfolding,
spent inordinate time and thought
picking out the most dazzling wallpaper
they could find.
Just like her, and them,
they wanted a backdrop to new beginnings,
then watched the years roll on, amazed
at how quickly the paper faded, ebbing
into yet another layer
on walls in which we laugh and live.
, family history
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, personal stories
Tucked in a far corner of my dining room (just beyond where anyone spontaneously stopping by can see), is a mish mashed pile of pictures that call to me on a daily basis. I probably wouldn’t feel so bad, so guilty
, if it were the only pile. However, there’s another fat envelope of special events and fabulous smiles in a kitchen drawer...and boxes of chromogenic prints heaped so precariously and monumentally on top of one another in the spare bedroom closet, my family and I have deemed it the “Leaning Tower of Pictures". (Don’t even get me started on the hundreds on our computer and various CDs; I shutter
at the thought. Sorry...that pun was too good to ignore!) Each box ticks off another year or milestone, holding treasured memories we never want to lose.
Okay, so it’s time for a reality check: Unless I take control now, not only will the piles continue to accumulate with the passing of every future milestone, the majority of the dust-covered lot will one day end up usurping space in the back of someone else’s closet (or, to my complete horror—decomposing in a landfill).
Somehow, I doubt I’m the only one with serious “photo guilt”—that haunting, nagging feeling that your pictures may never see the light of day. In this age of point-n-click technology, most of us have more photos than we need or know how to handle. Fortunately, I’ve found there is light (more like a blinding flash) at the end of the wide angle lens. Below, are six steps to help you get over your photo guilt, silencing those boxes, once and for all.
1) Hunt and Gather
. Most people get “stuck” just looking at all those intimidating, picturesque mountains from afar. I say, it’s time to show those photos who is boss! Once you get them all into a central location (one big enough to spread out and be comfortable working in), you’ll find that you will not only enjoy revisiting your priceless memories, but that feeling of finally being “proactive” will propel you on to the next step, which is…
2) Sorting the stacks. Once you have the pictures gathered in one location, you have two, sorting options:
a. Chronological — This is the most commonly used way to organize photos. First, group them by year. Then, go through each envelope and sort by month. If there isn’t a date on the photo, just go with your best estimation.
b. Categories — If you are dealing with complete and utter photo mayhem (like me), chronological organization may feel more daunting than building a time machine and going back to relive those special moments. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to make up your own, organizational categories. For example, I began by sorting pictures into two groups—“People” and “Events”. Then, I further divided pictures of “People” into “Friends”, “Kids”, “Grandparents”, etc., and “Events” into “Vacations”, “School”, “Graduations”, “Holidays”, etc.
3) Throw out redundancy. You weed your garden—why not old photos? Become comfortable with throwing out those redundant or lesser quality shots. Keep only those that truly speak to you and best represent the event, person, or occasion.
4) Save photo negatives. Most experts believe negatives are worth saving, ideally in a fire-proof safe or at a local bank. Do NOT save them with your photos. It may seem like a hassle to take this precautionary measure, but there are three, important reasons for it: 1) Pictures fade (color pictures have a short, 50-year lifespan), 2) they can be easily destroyed; and 3) the quality of reprints or enlargements is significantly higher if taken from a negative.
5) Label. Identifying the “who, what, where, and when” is probably the most daunting part of the process—but it’s essential. As you go through each envelope and/or stack, try to label as many pictures as you can. Whenever possible, include the full names of the people in the picture, the date, and the location. (Trust me, future generations will thank you profusely for taking the guesswork out of the equation!) Please note: Use a special pen made only for this purpose, as a regular pen makes indentions on the front of a photo.
Time To Show-And-Tell!
If you’ve taken the above steps, congratulations! Your freeze-framed memories can truly be enjoyed with peace-of-mind and clarity. Now that photo guilt has been successfully eradicated, why not let some of your favorite shots leap from the shadows into the limelight? Some options to fully optimize your life in pictures include:
1) Create photo albums
. This is a classic way to display pictures that never goes out-of-date. (Although, you may
run out of room.) Again, I’ll direct you toward The National Archives for tips on quality album covers and paper, as it does makes a significant difference in the longevity of your photos. Visit http://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives/album-types.html
for more details.
2) Frame them. No décor touch adds more personality to a home than elegantly framed photos. While scenery shots make great art, those encompassing family and friends (close enough to clearly see their faces) speak straight to the heart. To me, both are easily worth at least a wall or two.
3) Go digital. Scanning photos (saving them onto a computer CD, memory stick, or flash drive) not only allows you to consolidate and back-up your photos, it’s also a great way to show them off. Once scanned, most damaged pictures can be restored to near perfection. Digitizing photos also allows you to display a greater magnitude of shots, through the creation of everything from coffee table books (including captions and stories)…to videos set to music (or recorded interviews)…to online photo albums…to mementos, such as mugs, calendars, mouse pads, digital photo frames….The options are virtually limitless.
If you have time, a little “know-how”, and the right equipment (i.e., computer, scanner, and picture software, like Photoshop), you can certainly scan your pictures yourself. Of course, there are a number of reputable companies that can take the time-consuming task off your hands, offering fast photo-scanning (a service particularly useful when dealing with those voluminous “Leaning Towers”), as well as other methods of photo archiving, preservation, restoration, and clever ways to display your photos. And, I’m happy to share more detailed, photo-related ideas, and help you with every step of the process. (You may also want to consider having WriteLifeStories help you incorporate any number of other, invaluable memoir or keepsake elements into your photo project.) Regardless of how you choose to proceed, I’d simply encourage you to bravely face those haunting boxes. Brush off the dust and dig in. After all, we all
had great, picturesque reasons for taking (or inheriting and keeping) those wonderful photos in the first place, right? Now is the time to put those reasons to lasting, guilt-free use.
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“The beauty of the written word is that it can be held close to the heart, and read over and over again.” –Florence Littauer
I was a baby when my maternal grandmother passed away. I’ve been told that, within hours of succumbing to ovarian cancer, Grandma Wilma held me tenderly for a few minutes, bestowing kisses and expressing gratitude for the chance to have been a grandmother, if only for a year. I always felt like I’d sorely missed out by not knowing her. Then, one day just a couple of years ago, my mother handed me a dusty, cardboard box crammed with old, well-thumbed letters. (My uncle found the box amongst my grandparents’ few, remaining possessions, and managed to put the letters—nearly 1,000 in total—into sequential order.) Some of them are between Wilma and her parents, but most of the near-daily correspondence is an intimate exchange between my grandparents (pictured at right, at my parents' wedding in 1967). The love letters span a full twenty years (1926-1946), beginning with their initial, long-distance courtship and ending while in the throes of raising a young family. Needless to say, I was—and am—incredibly grateful. Out of all the things that could have been saved, this was something truly invaluable…something personal…something that offered a second chance.
Although the volume was daunting (it took months to read through the box's fragile, yellowed innards), the reward was having my grandmother materialize before my eyes. She was no longer the rather ambiguous subject of faded photos, second-hand stories, and bittersweet conversations with my mother. Wilma had colorized into a whole person—daughter, sister, teacher, friend, lover, wife, mother, and survivor of life’s innumerable triumphs and tragedies. Solely through the written word, I became privy to her inner-most hopes, thoughts, and feelings, and grew to understand the choices and sacrifices she made, as well as the logic and emotion that accompanied it.
As time progressed and Wilma's world changed, I loved observing this shy, rather uncertain girl evolve into a strong, wise woman. Unquestionably, she’s someone I am proud to call my grandmother (although, it's probably not surprising that I identify more with the younger years of those letters). Now that I have some real insight into our similarities and differences, it's fun to conclude that, if we’d been able to spend time together, we would have also been friends.
Given Wilma's demure, quiet nature (admittedly, that's a trait that does not fall into our 'similiarities' category), it's somewhat surprising that the letters still exist. I think it would have been easy for my grandmother to have simply junked them, especially when she became terminally ill. I can imagine making the (wrong) assumption that the letters—and all thoughts and feelings connected to them—weren't of enough significance to keep. Or that, by tossing them, she’d be saving her family the time and "hassle" of cleaning out her personal belongings once she was gone.
Yet, instead of fetching a garage can, Grandma Wilma found a box, tidied up her mountain of letters, and allowed her humanity—her ideas, vulnerabilities, and inner-most self— to endure well beyond her lifetime. (It’s worth noting that my grandfather proceeded to keep the letters safely tucked away until his own death 18 years later.) To me, leaving that simple, unmarked box behind was a brave thing to do. When I hold one of her letters, I feel an intangible sense of faith and hope in the future's “unknown”—including me, and all those who would (and will) come after. In general, I respect anyone who is willing to leave a truthful foothold to the past, as it not only allows us to “relive” it, as Florence Littauer suggests above (if we so choose), but, more importantly, I think—to learn from it. All of it—the "good," the "bad," and every twist and turn in between. If we keep open the door to history's both profound and subtle lessons, our present thoughts and future actions cannot help but abide with greater tolerance, intention, and authenticity.
Obviously, many circumstances have changed over the years, but the rich, beautiful story that unfolds through my grandparents’ letters is as relevant today as ever. Still, I worry that, in their rather crumbly, ephemeral condition, this wonderful, ancestral paper trail will probably not make it into the hands of those who are currently just a ‘twinkle in someone’s eye.' Even if they do manage to stay intact for a few, more decades, will anyone else take the time to read them? After all, in this age of instant gratification—of email, smartphones, and flash drives—people are hardly becoming more patient. Therefore, I’ve made it my mission to scan and digitally archive the whole, weathered lot, then consolidate it all into a professionally-bound book. To make it a real "page-turner," I'll add lots of pictures, captions, fun antidotes, some family genealogy, and even a few recipes from my mom and uncle (if they are willing to divulge some "secret," family ingredients.) In other words, turn the overflowing contents of a visibly exhausted cardboard box into my grandparents’ LifeStory. (Seems fitting, doesn’t it?) Undoubtedly, it’s a process that’s going to take serious time and effort. But, hey, my grandparents—both of them—are worth it. I feel like I finally know this “first-hand”—and it makes me happy that future generations will have the chance to know it too.
, book publishing
, family history
, life stories
, personal stories