May 23, 2012

Boxes full of memories

Your house is on fire.

Fortunately, your spouse, roomie, dog, cat, houseplant and pet Goldfish are all on a field trip to the zoo. Everything alive is already safe. You have 30 seconds. What do you grab?

The answer for most people, is pictures. They are the record of your life, a visual diary, the moments that make up the whole. My Mom would have to have a large cart to haul out all of her photo books, but now for most of us, that would mean grabbing our computers. Pictures are digital bits rather than squares of paper sitting under a protective sheet of plastic. This usually keeps them better protected, but at the same time, they are locked away, rarely seen or shared.

Of course storing them digitally is not a perfect solution. Computers crash, hard drives fail, and they are just as vulnerable to heat, water and other methods of destruction. My housemates recently lost several years of their (photo) life when the backup drive stopped working. Gone were several years of photos, including the ones during the first year of their daughter's life.

For more than a year, there was this hole. They tried to access the photos in multiple ways to no avail. They put off a trip to a computer shop, delaying what they felt was the inevitable judgment that all was lost. When they finally enlisted the help of an expert, they learned the external drive was indeed toast.

I have felt something similar the past three years. The photos from the first few years of my marriage were pre-digital, and the only copies were those we had developed. Camping trips, cruises, parties, random moments, and of course our wedding - they all sat in a box a thousand miles away in J's storage unit. When things were split up, it was understood that I wanted copies, but actually making that happen kept getting put off. I don't know if I would have gone through them soon after our divorce, but the fact that they were missing made the hole in my past even larger.

The scanning of copies was a big project for her, but I think the delay was more related to not wanting to go through them. I can't know what they meant to her, but I am sure she anticipated some sort of pain during the walk through the past. I understood her hesitance, but would bring up the subject every six months or so. I think after three years, the lines of diminishing pain and increasing insistence crossed on the graph, and she sent them to me last month.

We exchanged some friendly emails in the process, and she remarked that the job she had been dreading ended up being somewhat enjoyable. Two large boxes were soon on my doorstep. My housemates were going to be out of town for a few days, so I set them aside for a week until I could go through them in privacy. I wasn't sure how they would hit me, and it was something I needed to do alone. The first night they were gone, I opened a nice bottle of wine and broke the seal on the box of memories.

One box had the wedding photos, and the other everything else. Not knowing which was which, I opened the wedding photos first, but immediately set them aside. For a couple of hours, I went through piles of photos, loosely grouped by event, but with a little bit of random chaos mixed in.

She had initially separated out photos of herself in some hopes sparing me painful surprises.While I appreciated the sentiment, I told her it was unnecessary. I didn't go camping or take those trips alone. This was the time we were together, and there is no magic eraser to take her out of my memory, or the pictures that hold them so tightly. Even if there was, it would be just one more hole in my past.

I looked through them with a mix of feelings, of course. Smiles, regret, surprise, wistfulness and warmth. Even with the photos filling back in the hole in my life's timeline, there was still a lingering vacancy. The feelings behind those captured moments are now different, but it was still a blessing to look through them. Although nothing is clearer than it was three years ago, time has done some of its work nonetheless.

After going through the first box, I hesitated over the second. It was getting late, and I debated saving the wedding for another day, but decided to press on. More regret, but still more beauty. We had put out disposable cameras on the tables, and there were some good candid shots, but oddly the staged, professional ones seemed to capture the day best. As much as I had wanted to see them a couple of years ago, it probably would have been a semi-masochistic exercise. They still grabbed me looking through them now, but with a gentler hand. I imagine the next time I go back to them, they will look different all over again.

Fortunately, my housemates were able to recover most, if not all of their photos a couple of weeks ago. The other Sean had made copies of the photos when he was setting up their Apple TV and creating some slide shows. Before he arrived with a stack of DVDs, I had burned some as well with pictures that I had from that era. Going through those sort of prepped me for the boxes on my doorstep, and made the walk through the past a little easier.

I am glad to have the pictures back, for all they represent. I will still stumble over it, but the hole is filled in a little bit.

Just a few moments in time, starting with a couple of old ones that were mixed in.

A much younger me

My brother during our 1992 Japan trip

 A couple of kisses on my first Caribbean cruise

Some good friends

Camping goodness

(I had just eaten dirt-encrusted Jello off the ground)

Wedding day

  And to finish, Sierra in her younger days

With Holly

With young Carson

And in the chair where she waited for us to come home

There are more photos from even farther back, languishing in my own storage unit. I need to dig them out before anything can happen to them. I can only imagine what I might find, and anyway, they shouldn't be locked away, never to be seen. These moments are who we are, and once in a while it does some good to remember.