The task was daunting. Four large cartons full of loose photographs sat on the floor of our study waiting to be reviewed and organized. Sorting them would be a difficult job – the contents of those boxes represented two long and eventful lives, spanning more than 70 years. When we were emptying out my father-in-law and mother-in-law’s house in Liberty, as part of their move to a new, smaller apartment closer to their children, we couldn’t take the time to decide what to do with each photo album and all the loose pictures we found. We set aside some of the framed photos on the wall to bring to the new place and put the rest in cartons. I volunteered to take the load to my house with the idea that at some point I would go through them to see what we had and organize them. Once I unloaded the car and put the boxes in our study — two years ago — it was easier to let them sit than to begin the project.
Then my father-in-law died – a month ago now. In the immediate aftermath, I opened a few of the boxes and grabbed some photos for my husband and his siblings to reminisce over when they did their Zoom shiva sessions. Questions about family history were raised. It felt like it was time to fully open the cartons and see what the contents could tell us.
Fortunately, last Thursday, while chatting with my daughter, Leah, I mentioned this project and she offered to help. On the spur of the moment she suggested coming home, she lives in the Boston area, the very next day and spending the weekend. The project was starting to feel a bit less daunting.
I went to Staples to get photograph containers. The material we would be sorting came in all different sizes. I bought various sized plastic bins. I had no idea how many we would need. I started with five. It turned out not to be enough.
Leah arrived and we got right to work. First, we strategized. We would leave whole photo albums intact. We thought we would start with a sort into three broad categories: photos from before and during World War II, the years in Cuba, and then the ‘modern’ era in America.
We dove in and found out that those categories weren’t going to cut it. There were a number of things that didn’t fit. For example, my mother-in-law saved thank you cards that included photographs from various weddings. That became a separate category. There were also various documents and letters among the photos. We set those aside in another pile. As we pored over the pictures, another issue emerged: we didn’t recognize the people and we couldn’t tell where or when the photo was taken.
I should note that it was not our job to decide if any of it should be thrown away. That decision would remain for Gary and his siblings once they knew what they had. Our plan is once it is safe to meet in person, the siblings will get together and look through the catalogue and decide what to do with it.
On Saturday, Leah and I spent about five or six hours sorting, learning as we went. We got better at recognizing faces. We started picking up on clues: clothes, background scenery like palm trees and wallpaper, the numbers at the bottom of the prints sometimes helped group items or names of photolabs. Gary used his phone and took some photos and texted them to the family to get their input. Slowly but surely, we made progress. At the end of the day on Saturday, when we decided to break for dinner, we had succeeded in emptying all but one box. We were left with many piles on our dining room table and a final box to go through on Sunday.
Saturday evening I was surprised to find myself exhausted and parched. Something about the sustained concentration and the dust from handling old papers, left Leah and I mentally tired and very thirsty. It was a relief to relax and water myself!
We resumed our efforts after breakfast on Sunday. The last box contained whole photo albums, two of which we were hoping to find: Gary and his brother’s respective bar mitzvah albums. We were delighted to find them all intact and no loose photos to categorize.
We set about combining our existing piles and further refined our categories. It was painstaking because there were so many different ways one could organize things. We could have done it entirely chronologically, another option was to do it by people or family, and still another possibility was to group things by events. There was no right way to do it. We made our best guess at what would make sense and used a combination of those categories. We finished our task late in the afternoon.
Once Covid is over, we’ll invite the family to a photo-review party. That should be fun. Then the siblings can decide if they want to divide them up or digitize them or dispose of some of it.
So, what did the contents of those cartons tell us? I was struck by the many pictures of my mother-in-law smiling. It isn’t that Paula doesn’t smile, but when I think of her I see her in my mind’s eye with a serious countenance, especially in this last decade as Alzheimer’s robbed her of so much of her spark. It was good to reminded of her lighter side and to see her full of life.
The photos also show Paula and David living a life connected to others. Many pictures of family and friend gatherings over decades – the same core of people crowding around a table for a meal over the course of many years. One thing about living such a long life, many of the people in the photos are now gone. It is bittersweet but comforting to reflect on the richness of those lives.
Looking at the pictures over the years, it was also interesting and sometimes amusing to take in the fashions. The Bakst family went to celebrations in style!
I also realize how wonderful it is when there is a note on the back of a photo or in the margin of an album that gives the names of the people (especially babies!), the date and maybe the place. This might be less of a thing with digitized pictures since some of that information is embedded, but it was so helpful in this project. Interestingly many of the notes on the back of these photos were in another language – Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and something we couldn’t recognize. We put a post-it on all of those so we could come back to them and ask for assistance with translation.
I couldn’t help but think about my own collection of photographs. When the pandemic began one of my early projects was to go through a couple of drawers of loose photos and organize them and I completed that to some extent. I still have a large plastic bin in the basement that needs to be organized.
I have generally been good about creating photo albums. Whenever we come back from a trip, I make up an album soon after, even though the pictures are on my phone. I am not satisfied with scrolling through files of photos. I prefer to look at them in print, along with saved ticket stubs, maps and small memorabilia – almost like a scrapbook, but not going that far. I enjoy looking through our adventures from time to time. But, what will become of them when Gary and I are gone? I think about the many albums sitting in my mother’s place in Florida. She too documented her travels in albums, and she was lucky enough to travel extensively with my dad and even continued to after he died. I guess there is no avoiding having to make painful choices when the time comes.
The vast majority of pictures we sorted through over the weekend were of people, very few were of landscapes or other sites. It makes me think about the purpose of taking the pictures in the first place. These days, with cameras in phones, we have so many photos and videos. What will we do with them? Maybe they serve their purpose in the taking; in solidifying an image in our minds so that we can remember it better in the future. I’m curious how young adults feel about the photos on their phones – do they curate them or organize them? Do they look back at them?
Having undertaken this effort, I have a lot of questions. One random one: Why do we keep whole sheets of school profile pictures? You know the ones – the page of wallet-size pictures, followed by the same photo in a variety of sizes. I admit it is hard to throw away perfectly good pictures of our adorable children, but…..
I imagine that some of the material we found has historical value. Would a museum or research institute want it? The family may want to consider donating those items so that they are preserved properly.
Photography, no doubt, is also an art form. When Gary and I travel, or when we hike, I like to take some images of scenes that I think are particularly beautiful or interesting. I doubt anyone else would find them compelling.
I admit my brain is tired this Monday morning. But, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and hopefully it will be something the rest of the family will find enlightening when they can peruse the collection – once we emerge from this plague.