My cousin’s son has gotten very interested in our family history and shared some ancient photos and documents he’s unearthed. I happen to have some of that sort of thing myself. Would he be interested? By cracky—I say, antiquely—he would.
The reason I have all these photos and scrapbooks is that when my parents died, over forty years ago, and we kids got together to divide the spoils, such as they were, I volunteered to be the family archivist. It sounded cool. I was the youngest, by a lot, and maybe I should have gotten a clue when my brother and sisters knocked each other over leaping up to shove boxes to my side of the room before I changed my mind.
I went home with my treasure and peeled it open. When all four of your grandparents were born between 1874 and 1882, you’ve got the promise of some serious antiquity. I believe I got as far in my triage as separating the loot into Mommy and Daddy piles, and stacking them into boxes, and transferring them to a bottom drawer somewhere; and then I put my archival duties away in an even dustier location behind my brain’s filing cabinet.
Even the word “archivist” is collecting dust in there. Archivist is one of those words I never seem to come up with when I need it, and my brain tends to supply “Anarchist” instead. Which is appropriate, because when it comes to organizing thoughts and getting around to doing things, nobody seems to be in charge up there. And I guess it’s better than “Antichrist.”
So this is an altogether wonderful thing: an eager, organized, fully grown human being is actually doing what I once said I’d do, and he wants my stuff. I located all the old boxes and had at it. Here’s the thing. Many people have trouble getting rid of stuff, even if having it feels burdensome and they will never ever use any of it again and no one else will ever want it. But almost everybody has trouble getting rid of old photographs. Ditching them feels something like presiding over an extinction.
You spend an afternoon looking at photos of your mom from age four through 34 and you realize she really did smile like that all the time, like she was truly tickled to see you, and your heart feels as bursty as it did when you were in her lap being her sweetie-pie sugar-plum, and your own face cracks open just to see that smile again, and there is no other value in this world to these photographs, which you have not looked at in forty years. In fact, hanging onto them is a little time-bomb of guilt to give your heirs, who will have even less use for them and will also feel bad about throwing them away. It makes even less sense for me, because I have no heirs who are related to that side of the family. In my line, I’m either the dead-end or the culmination, depending on your viewpoint.
But it has been immensely heartening to leaf through these album pages and framed portraits and recognize something stalwart and cheerful and just plain good about these people that ribboned out of Norway and curled up in North Dakota, some echo of which I dare to think I hear in my own cells. I’m proud and grateful to have lucked into this particular gene pool, even over my more illustrious but melancholic paternal strain.
So I scanned a few dozen favorites and sent the originals to their new home where they will be treated properly for once. It’s a good thing. It’s 2022, and we don’t any of us have the future we should have had. Not anymore. At least for me, I know my past looks bright.