Spring Cleaning: Pictures to Prove It

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“When I look at my old pictures, all I can see is what I used to be but am no longer. I think: What I can see is what I am not.” – Aleksandar Hemon

I keep things.

Not unnecessary things. Not old clothing, not outdated gadgets, and definitely not Halloween candy. But I do hold on to items that have sentimental value, or at one time did.

I was, and am, a collector. Action figures became baseball cards became records became…

Some of these items didn’t have as much sentimental value, and therefore went by the wayside. But other items, like ticket stubs for sporting events and music concerts I attended, were held onto because of the experience attached. More so than the items themselves, it was the memories that mattered. These keepsakes are great mementos of the times that shaped my life and have made me me.

One of the most meaningful collections I hope to keep around is not even mine, in actuality. My parents have amassed an outstanding collection of photographs.

Many photos include myself and my immediate family, of course, but some are pictures of people I never met. While these don’t serve as mementos from my upbringing, they provide a look at individuals who impacted me in ways not so immediately accessible. Great aunts, great uncles, family friends, and particularly grandparents and great-grandparents who indirectly provided education and nurturing that has filtered down the family line to me. And now, in turn, to my own children. Knowingly or not, this impact exists, yet the people involved are held only in stories and photographs– the laughter, the tears, and the memories, both good and bad, have lived on through family anecdotes.

A photograph can bring all of this to the forefront of the memory; stories of the past beg to be shared. Impromptu reminiscence can bring everyone into the room. It’s the “I remember when…” and “That was the time…” that garner the most attention. Not every story ends happily ever after, either. But all stories have a moral. Eventually, all stories serve a purpose. Sometimes, the purpose is in the actual storytelling experience.

No smart device can draw a red-blooded kid away from a good family story. At least, not the stories worth telling. And retelling. And retelling…

True? Potentially. Embellished? Absolutely.

Paper photographs will probably become a thing of the past. Already are, I suppose. With the internet age, actual hard copies of pictures may be unheard of in another 100 years’ time. In some ways, that’s just fine, because we can hold on to many, many more photos on a hard drive or a web cloud. In other ways, that’s woefully unfortunate, since there’s something indescribably real about holding a photograph on printed paper instead of a smart device. Yes, both are mere images from the past. But the touch of the photograph instead of a swipe on a screen gives nostalgia; an old picture has additional sentimental worth since, in most cases, it cannot be reprinted. Sure, the picture can be scanned into a computer, but that one-time historical shot and yellowing photographic gloss cannot be truly replicated like a digital copy.

Pre-21st century photographs are invaluable.

Funny enough, many of my own old photographs are strewn carelessly in various files or keepsake baskets or old shoeboxes. I see them when cleaning out a room or sorting through the house. During spring cleaning, while sifting through old stuff to throw out or give away, I often catch sight of a pile and sift through the pictures real quick, thinking back to the times in (and out of) focus. Inevitably, I think about how I’ve changed. I also think of the ways I’m still the same. I think about where I’ve come and where I’m going, and what I would tell the guy in the pictures. That guy who I see, but no longer am.

After tossing the photos back to sit and collect more dust, I always know I should treat them better. I know they deserve a chance to be seen. They deserve a chance for their stories to be told. There is no organization, and there really should be.

That’s why the family photo albums matter to me.

In a recent basement flood, many of my mother’s possessions were destroyed in rain water– carpet ruined, furniture replaced, wall boards removed for fear of rot and mold. It was an overhaul. A small devastation many readers may have also experienced.

But the items that were of most value? Photographs. Irreplaceable memories of the past.

In the scramble of the flood, the photo albums were removed from the basement with highest priority; the pictures were then removed from the dated albums and laid out to dry. Fanned and aired out for days, these photographs were what my mom, and all of us, really hoped would survive. The other items were just “things.” Stuff. All of that could be replaced, if desired. But the photographs? The photographs were memories frozen in time.

Unfortunately, some photos were in fact lost. Damaged in the sopping wet vinyl picture holders from decades past. Soaked through, color running, torn in the removal process… the old paper fell apart and some images were gone forever. Others, on the other hand, were saved. With happy hearts, many of the warped images were salvaged and returned to new albums and eventually put back on (higher) shelves.

The past was preserved, ready and waiting to see the light of day whenever the time comes for another trip down memory lane. When the grandkids or great-grandkids show interest. When names and faces and stories come calling once again to be seen and to be heard.

And when that time comes, we have pictures to prove it.

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