Thursday, 25 October 2018

Old photographs

My Great-Grand-Family

I am in the middle of an obsessive project. Anne supports the obsession by making sure I get dressed in the morning and eat a good dinner in the evening.
The obsession involves identifying family members in old photographs (my mom is helping immensely via text!), typing labels for these photos, and then scanning the photos with their labels so that future family members can see the family story.
I scan photos for people as part of my work as an organizer. I have often thought, and even commented to my clients, that these photos or family letters that they have had me scan would be an amazing glue for a novel or some other type book.
I have a particular fascination with history, simple factual history, the fact that what happened even 100 years ago is all but a mystery to us today. Autobiographies are written about famous people of 50 or more years ago that are so full of guesses, probablies, and we-thinks. I wonder how on earth we lose information so quickly.
My Gram Beverly
Here I am scanning photos of family members born just about 100 years ago. In those lifetimes, they existed in a world I can not even imagine. My great grandmother, for example, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, went to a sanatorium, where she was treated in isolation from the outside world and eventually died. I have approximately 5,034 questions. From the diagnosis to her death…  HOW did it all play out? Did she go home to pack a few things? Was she instantly and immediately quarantined? How do you feel about these things as a 22 year old mother of two daughters??? She lived there for about a year. What did she do? How did she pass time? Did she write? Is there any hope of recovery or do patients all intend to go and die there?
She died leaving two very young daughters with their father in the middle of The Great Depression. These two daughters ended up wards of the state growing up in a State Public School, but their father never gave up his rights to the girls. Rather than adoption which would only be possible if their father gave them up, the girls went from foster home to foster home which often meant being a servant to a family who needed help. The way children’s protective services has changed since these days is truly unbelievable. What was acceptable, required, and expected back just 80 years ago is simply stunning to me. How can I be so removed from the reality of just 80 years ago and from a situation that was a family reality no less???
"yours truly" is my grandpa, AKA Pop
These are the questions that compel me to scan photos for my own family and for other people with boxes of photos and old albums rotting in the basement. These days scanners are available for a very affordable price-tag. People can certainly scan their own photos. My clients hire me (for 19 cents per photo) because often, these jobs are incredibly overwhelming, exhausting, and time consuming even if you move quickly and know exactly what you are doing. I scan photos for other people, then they can label the photos once they are in digital form. The overwhelm is greatly reduced. The albums can still exist for those of us who enjoy the tactile existence of old paper, but the color and integrity of the paper will be preserved digitally as those colors fade and paper disintegrates in real life.
Anne and I read the first two Miss Peregrine books by Ransom Riggs. These books are written for a young audience but employ the concept of using old bizarre photographs to propel the storytelling. I positively love this concept.
Pop at the end of WWII
With all of the photos I am currently scanning, with all the questions that I have swimming in my brain, with all of my desire to write a story that floods the mind with awe and imagery, I am beginning to outline a tale using the tales of my family of this 1930’s time. The fact is, this book will be complete fiction even if I use the correct names and dates. The important part of any story is the way people feel. I can’t possibly know any of that. And this takes us back to my fascination with history of the not-so-distant past. Even a well researched autobiography of a famous person is put together with suppositions. These render the entirety at least somewhat fictitious. Even a biography written by a person about her own life in the here and now could be considered somewhat fictitious. One person’s point of view in any particular situation might be another person’s complete fiction, and not because one is lying. Points of view, ways that we each internalize the world around us, these are individual and not universal.
For now, I will finish scanning all these piles of photos and keep them safe for any family member of the future who cares to see them. Maybe, just maybe, I will find a way to tell a story with them.

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