They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
–Paul Simon and Phil Ramone
After my dad died this past February, I think both my brother and I knew it was only a matter of time before my mother decided to move into a senior living situation.
That time came last month.
So, I recently spent 10 days in the Arizona sunshine – and 90 degree October heat – helping my brother pack up and move the things she needed in her apartment at the resort-like senior living community. We then spent a week together packing up the contents of her home.
A home that was filled with 60 years of married life.
A home that was filled with sweet notes written and exchanged between my parents.
A home filled with the minutiae of daily living.
A home filled with a collection of Samar and Krawczun family history in the form of both documents and, of course, photographs.
My mother is not strong enough to help, so my brother and I went through 60 years of paperwork, clothing, kitchen cabinets and boxes. We worked diligently in separate rooms, with 80s rock music blasting from my iPad to break the silence.
Occasionally, one of us would find some remnant of our childhood and wander in to show the other. We had no idea our parents had kept so many threads of our childhood and family history.
And, again, the pictures.
What to do with the pictures?
I opened a trunk and discovered two large, ornate vintage picture frames, carefully wrapped in old cotton sheets. Inside? My great-grandmother’s wedding portrait, and a formal family photo, circa 1920 when my grandmother was just five years old. The two photos were hand-tinted, fragile-looking, and yellowed.
But the faces staring back at us were familiar.
They were members of our family.
My great-grandparents were both born in the Ukraine and came to the United States as small children. They were uneducated, but hard-working. Paying a photographer to shoot a family photo of themselves and their four small children was most likely not something they could afford to do very often. But I immediately recognized this portrait because it hung in my great-grandmother’s house. Seven years after the photo was taken, my great-grandfather died of pneumonia at the age of 36.
It very well could have been the last formal photo taken of him.
So now what?
What to do with the photos?
When my grandparents died, my parents inherited part of their collection of family photos and hauled them from Sault Ste. Marie to the Arizona desert. My brother and I stared, in silent reverence, at the photos, quietly saying, “Oh, wow…”
But again: what to do with them?
My dad loved taking pictures. Throughout my life, I always enjoyed going through various photo albums in my parent’s home, looking at pictures he took of my mom when they were dating, of my brother and me when we were babies, toddlers, and small children.
He gave me one of his old 35 mm cameras to take to Mackinac Island when I worked there in the summers during college. There, I shot photos of both forts, Lake Huron’s rocky beaches, my coworkers and friends, and the blue, blue water surrounding the island.
I took photography classes in college and learned how to develop and print black and white film. I loved – and still love – trying to frame a person or an object in an interesting way.
In my basement there is a bin full of the negatives of all the film photos I have ever taken, dating from high school until the early 2000s when I got my first digital camera. There’s a corner of a drawer in my desk that holds every digital camera card I ever filled, and now, of course, my iCloud account contains a permanent digital record of everything I record with my iPhone camera, from the most stunning of sunsets taken from the deck of a sailboat, to a price sticker on some random appliance I was shopping for at Lowe’s in 2015.
Who shall inherit the spoils?
Two weeks after diving into the photographic history of our family, my brother and I are still discussing: “What next?” Who wants this photographic history? Should it be kept? Should it be digitally documented and then discarded? Or, does no one really care about the documentation of our family history?
I can tell, for both of us, that feels sad.
When we spoke today, I said to him: “Who is ever going to want MY collection of film negatives or SD cards or my iCloud account? Someday, all of that will just go away, right?”
I don’t even have kids who will ponder these questions.
The experience of helping clean out my parent’s home has definitely given me, a married-but-childless woman, a wakeup call: nobody wants your stuff, Patti. And you can’t take it with you. Not even to the very nice, resort-like senior living complex where my mother now resides. She didn’t want, nor does she need, much of anything in her home.
Last spring, during the weekend of my father’s funeral, my mother took me into their garage, my car-guy father’s domain. She encouraged me to go through the cabinets and look for mementos. The first cabinet I opened was full of my father’s artwork. In the mid-2000s, my dad took two years of drawing and art classes at the local community college. Inside his art cabinet was a nice, neat pile of portraits. My father had drawn every single one of us: my mother, my brother, my sister-in-law, both of my nephews, my grandfather, my grandmother, my uncle, and me.
Interestingly, the only portrait he had matted and framed was the portrait he sketched of me.
There was also an assortment of quick, stick-figure sketches of artist models who visited his classes.
They were really, really, good.
A week later, my sister-in-law sent me a photo of eight of my father’s sketches, now matted and framed, hanging in their family room. They looked stunning.
My dad, who was a shy, reserved introvert, would probably be a little embarrassed, but also very sincerely flattered, that someone thought so much of his artwork.
Before I flew home from Phoenix last week, I visited the UPS Store and shipped home the sketch my father drew of me. It is definitely 1990s-era Patti, with a perm in her hair, but it is me. And if there was any doubt, on the back of the frame is taped a small piece of paper with his engineer-like handwriting: “PATTI PENCIL 14 ½” x 18 ½”.”
I’m going to hang it in my office, where, someday, someone will take it down and prop it up on the floor, hoping someone will purchase it in an estate sale after I am dead and gone. No one will want the sketch of Patti. Someone might buy it for the frame.
The moral of the story?
First, when you’re ready, get rid of as much of your stuff as possible. If you’re still using it, great. If not, don’t hang onto it. Save your adult children the burden of spending weeks sorting through a household full of stuff.
(And I’m not criticizing our parents. I realize our family is no different than most others. I helped my parents clean out my grandparents’ home. My brother and I are just the next generation carrying on a family tradition that almost every middle-class family in America faces.)
Second, make a plan for the family photographs and documentation. We’re working on that. Maybe there is no easy plan for it, but if you have a relative who is into Ancestry.com or some form of genealogy, invite them to go through the family documentation and record it for posterity and for future generations to find online.
Third, be it photographs or personal artwork: frame it. Hang it. Enjoy it. I think seeing my father’s artwork hanging in my brother’s home and my home makes me happier than any of the formal family photos we ever took.
So, consider “Tidying Expert” Marie Kondo’s advice and spend an afternoon or a weekend (or three) going through the contents of your home and asking of each object: “Does this bring me joy?”
You’ll know the answer immediately.
Keep, discard and repeat.
P.S. – I’m so grateful to my brother and his wife for all they are doing to continue the work that needed to be done after I returned to Michigan. Your efforts are so appreciated.