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A few days ago I decided to take on one of my big to-do-tasks. It was time to sort photographs and other odds-and-ends of personal history, discard things I didn’t want, and organize the remainders so that I knew what I had. I wanted to be able to put my hands on something without having to sift through messy piles of uncatalogued ephemera. I started with photos of my travels. I quickly discovered that often there were three copies of the same picture, such as me on a camel at the Egyptian pyramids or me gazing at Peru’s Machu Pichu. I kept only one copy and also threw out blurry unrecognizable vistas. The “one copy” and “blurry” rules were easy to apply, but it became hard to toss pictures that evoked memories of exotic and fun journeys such as native markets in Mexico or Guatemala; ancient stone monuments in England and Scotland; or cathedrals in Italy and France.

Having started the daunting process of sorting, I decided I needed a cataloging scheme such as: one-of-a-kind vintage family; my childhood with parents, siblings, and relatives; my young adult life including friends and life-shaping experiences; my kids and grandkids; and ultimately my mid to later life. I recognize it could take months to go through the photographs and I don’t know if this filing scheme will work. Also, what to do with all of the slides that were never put on photographic paper? Can I look at all of them using a little viewer without driving myself crazy?

In addition to endless photographs, there are other memorabilia for which I have to find some storage logic – my crepe paper American flag from a junior high school history project, family trees, my mother’s sewing box, the letters from my kids when they were at camp, and my father’s and uncle’s autobiographies.

Even if I do reduce the volume and succeed in getting everything organized there is no one but me who understands what they are about unless I write explanations. This could take endless time. Do I have the patience for it? And, more importantly, if I do it, will anyone care? Right now my kids and grandkids have their own lives and wouldn’t have the time to learn what all of these bits and pieces represent. I will ask them, of course, but even if they say they don’t want them now, I think they will like to have the history if and when their lives become less busy.

So, I will save, document and figure out how to explain it all. If I don’t take on this assignment, then all of the knowledge and memories that fill my brain will end with me. I realize I can’t discard this heritage, but must preserve both the facts and the remembrances for my children and grandchildren. This puts a big responsibility on me to decide what I want them to know. First I want them to know their heritage and where they came from. This includes grandparents, great grandparents and relatives from previous generations – their personalities, life histories, connections to historical eras, and what made them who they were. Second, I want to share things about my own generation – family and friends. Third, I want them to know more details about me – schooling, activities, accomplishments, disappointments, decisions I made and why. Finally, I want to remind them of their own lives – from childhood and paths into adulthood. I want to imagine them nodding in understanding, and hopefully smiling when they see something that brings back their own growing up years.

I began sorting pictures with a naïve idea that I could just do it without thinking too much. I learned fast that is not possible. Sorting engenders memories and deep feelings, and the process reinforces the powerful desire to capture the past, and to pass that knowledge on to those who will bring it into the future.

Marian Leah Knapp

Marian Leah Knapp is a writer and advocate for a new vision of aging.

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