My sister and I were out in her garage this past weekend, immersed in the dust of the ages, digging in boxes and bins of old family photos with one purpose: to cull with no mercy.
These pictures are not just old. They are ancient and long ago put out to pasture, the stern, steady gaze of great-greats and unknown relatives pressed up against the sides of a plastic storage containers from Orchard Supply.
Carefully, delicately, as though disarming a bomb, I used the tips of two fingers to turn the crumbling black pages of an old album, the photos tenderly affixed decades ago by an equally cautious hand. Dark tones have grown gray. Whites could stand some bleach. Alas, despite my care, a brittle corner of a page broke off and floated to the garage floor like a small piece of ash. History was imploding at my very touch.
Something else slipped from the book. It was a short thank-you note to Edith, our grandmother, from Annabelle. Um. Who's Annabelle? I asked, coughing in the dust. "I have no idea," my sis said, sneezing. "And there's no one left from that generation who would know." We paused. Looked at each other. "Let's throw it out." Really? "Yes, let's do it." OK, you do it. "No, you do it." OK, one, two, three ...
Together, we let it tumble into the instant guilt-eraser known as the trash bin. We felt triumphant, energized. We high-fived. Then we turned back to the Everest of pics and mementos and realized we hadn't even left base camp. We rummaged for a while, tossed two photos plus a Folsom city guide from 1952 after we examined it for 10 minutes, unable to see why someone had saved it in the first place. Exhausted, we gave up and went inside for some memorable chicken salad.
Who are you?
Clearly, we didn't make much progress that day, but gosh darn it, it's hard to do. It feels wrong to throw away hard-copy photographs or things once deemed sentimental to someone. But for us in particular, there's not much reason to save them. Historic value, maybe. But it's not like we'll be passing them on to descendants -- we don't have any. I don't have kids. My sister recently lost her son, and he wouldn't have given much of a hoot about this anyway. It's all stuff from our dad's side of the family -- we're half-sisters and didn't grow up together -- so none of my cousins on my mom's side would want any of this. All of our parents are gone.
So we look at some of the stoic faces that elicit no sentimentality. There's a woman in pincurled locks, lace collar and wistful expression. There's a man with a beard and piercing eyes. But he's not looking through the decades at me, merely at a camera lens or whoever was behind it at the time. There's a shot of a boat on a lake. A car of the era. The front of a house with a caption in the tiny handwriting of my grandmother: "Harriet's front porch, 1931." That's great, but I don't know who Harriet was, nor do I have any familiarity with her porch. Do we need this one? "Nope." Trash? "Yup."
To toss or to treasure
Still, they're photos. Moments of time, preserved, tangible. It feels wrong to throw them away. Back in the early 1900s, photographs meant more. It was rare to have one taken. People got all dressed up, posed patiently, waited ages for the prints, then framed them, cherished them, gave them places of honor on a mantle. Now there are zillions of pics floating around in my hard drive. Might as well be in plastic bins in the garage.
Sure, there are plenty of things you can do with old photos. Frame them. At the very least, organize them. Scan them in, until of course that technology becomes obsolete or your computer crashes or there's a magnetic storm that wipes out all digital data.
Some services will scan for you and send back a DVD, such as ScanMyPhotos or ScanCafe. Others, such as Snapfish or Shutterfly, turn pics into neat albums or put them on mugs and calendars. Pinterest has tons of crafty ideas for photo collages, wreaths, coasters, lamp shades, jewelry.
Or, you can throw them away. That's my first inclination: Don't look, just toss. But dang it, I looked. So I brought one small ancient album home with me. If nothing else, the people inside deserve to rest on my bookshelf. Another corner of a page broke off, floating to the floor like a small piece of ash.