September 20, 2021.
Eighteen months ago, I had a grand plan that during the lockdown for Covid-19, I would sort out our cupboards of photographs, paperwork, unwanted artwork, clothes, books and bric-a-brac that we have accumulated over the years. This was the appropriate activity for a time when we would be confined to quarters – with no fixed end in sight. No more excuses. There loomed in my mind an image of a simpler life, à la elegant Marie Kondo – she of the calm smile and few possessions.
Long ago, I read one of Marie’s slim books, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’. I loved the idea of working out what gives me ‘joy’ – who does not warm to this simple method? I progressed as far as folding jumpers (sweathers) her way and rolling scarves in the drawer so they could be viewed at a glance. However, when Marie Kondo mentioned that she kept only 30 or so ‘volumes’ (books) at one time and that she emptied out her bag every time she came home, I began to see that the way forward for me working with Marie was fraught with challenges.
The real challenge lay in photographs: I have boxes of papers and photos from my father, who lived to the age of 97. He and his family were keen photographers, and I have more than 20 black albums of his; boxes of colour slides and storage tubs of old super-8 cine reels. My father recorded his family’s life in Nyasaland from the late 1920s onwards, and kept going… I am one of the few remaining family members who know most of the names of the people in these photographs. (Although the stories behind many of the photographs are lost to me).
I have photographs from the First World War of my grandfather when he fought with South African forces against General von Lettow-Vorbeck (the ‘Lion of Africa’) in Germany East Africa. (Now Tanzania). I have photographs of my father travelling north through Africa to fight the Italians advancing through Somalia. My father was with his African askaris battalion (the KAR) recruited in Nyasaland.
Let me come next to our more recent photographic enterprises, pre-digital. We have perhaps 30 to 40 albums filled with colour photographs: the early ones are fading. Few are digitised. If I go through these books, I will have to travel back in my life, review each page, consider each image, and cherry-pick a few samples. I could capture them with my smartphone, download them onto my computer, name and date them and sort them into various categories, transfer them onto memory sticks and deliver them to the four children. Should I throw away the albums? Do they still give me ‘joy’ or do I feel sad?
This is not an insignificant task, and at my age, you wonder if this is the best use of my time. That might be a selfish attitude. This would be a painful process – images of all that is passed: the friends and family that have died; your parents and happy times with them: all this must be re-visited; all this must be processed.
Is it not easier to ignore these piles of photos? Frankly, what is lost if I did that. The children are making their own memories. The grandchildren will do the same – and when they are grown and middle-aged, they will have their own problems. Why weigh them down with a load of photos? They would like a summary, of course. They would like a sprinkling of the images. If, when we are no longer here, they were faced with these boxes of albums, slides and negatives, it is highly likely that the family (like me) will store them for later decision making. If ever. Why do we burden our children with such a process? It’s not fair to them. These decisions are ours to make, difficult as they might be.
However, I am aware our generation sits in a unique position in regard to the record of our lives and our parents’ lives. Who else will be the record keeper of the previous generations?
Let’s look at how the young deal with photos and memories. Most youngsters use their phones for photographs which then might be posted on Facebook, Instagram and other messaging services. They sent emails and brief messages. Over the ensuing months, years and the acquisition of the latest smartphones, those photographs and personal emails are seldom edited and stored. Even if they are saved to the cloud, that is not failsafe. Are any printed out, stored or correctly filed? Unlikely. The transient nature of social media will be the death of memories and the history of families.
Thinking of memories, I am reminded of children that have lost their parents. During the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, the University of Natal started a project whose aim was to preserve the memories, the family memories, of a dying generation. The concept was to create a small box (often shoebox size) within which any memorabilia relating to the dying parents could be put. Strange, we do not have the words to adequately describe this process. I remember being told how these boxes might contain a few pathetic items, a couple of photos, maybe a bracelet or a ring, a school book, a toy, a letter – a few things to which the child could attach a loving memory – a tenuous connection to the parent, lost too soon.
‘Memory books or boxes help children build an identity and strengthen emotional capacity, to understand the past and be less afraid of the future.’
Thankfully we are not in that situation. We have too much, not too little.
Anyway, today, I did not restart the challenge of photographs. That had been a mistake of process: Marie Kondo says, start with the more manageable categories. So, I started emptying the drawers in an old filing cabinet I seldom open. However, I found that throwing away the letters, postcards, birthday and wedding cards was slow and emotionally challenging. I had to read each one: they transported me back to old friends and old times; to the person I once was; to the places where I once lived; to the journeys I took; to people I no longer connect with, to friends and family who have died. There were pages in diaries of my journeys: travel diaries written in a younger hand.
Before long, I stopped for tea, feeling older and sadder.
A positive and creative way to chronicle your life is to embark on a year of story writing through a program called Storyworth. The online program works as a relationship between the giver and the (target) writer. For $99 (US), you (the writer) will receive a weekly question. The questions can be designed by the giver or the writer (the author). Each week, the typed answer is submitted (can be with pictures) to Storyworth and saved. (These can be edited later). Gradually, a book of 52 chapters is built up, and at the end, your book is printed by Storyworth (more than one book can be ordered). Hey Presto! You have a story of your life – perhaps including the stories of your parents and grandparents: a gift for the next generation.
I have done this and ordered four books: it was much more entertaining than throwing out photos – and some of them found their way into my stories.