We seem to look back a lot these days. Not back to the future but back to the past. That’s what southern New Hampshire’s Kathleen Bailey was doing the other day, and it seems to have turned a bit emotional.
I became the keeper of the family archives by default. My sister is so much younger, she doesn’t even remember the people in the black-and-white photos. And I have begun the sometimes joyful, sometimes tedious process of preserving them electronically. Some are fragile, creased from much handling. Some go back to the turn of the century (the one that turned from 1899 to the year 1900).
There are Canadian ancestors in Victorian clothing, standing stiff and posed in a photo studio, or looking awkward in the backyard as a family member tries to figure out the mechanics of the first Kodak personal camera. Some of the women wear ruffled caps, and the children, even the baby boys, wear long dresses. It is another world.
At the Walmart photo desk, I held a fragment of a baby picture by the edges. The photographer’s name, “Joseph Belanger, Quebec,” was stamped in a corner. Did Joseph Belanger, Quebec, know that this infant’s grandchild would sit in a busy store and handle the photo by the edges? Could Joseph Belanger, Quebec, have even imagined the changes the world would see?
I looked with wonder on my very young parents, before there was a Me, sometimes before they were a They. And my once very young grandparents, holding one of their first babies in the barren yard of the home that would be theirs for 50 years.
The Walmart photo desk was not created with me in mind. But after a few false starts and an All Points Bulletin call to tech support, I started scanning.
A woman about my age occupied the next photo kiosk, with an older man I took to be her father. She was archiving some of HIS precious photos, and she took her time, going through every shot with him, reminiscing as they decided which ones they wanted to save. She explained everything to him, as though they had all the time in the world, which of course they didn’t. I wished I had my father with me. With his bent for technology, he’d probably be explaining the process to me.
They left, and another woman about my age took their place. She fumbled at first, but got the hang of it, eventually managing better than I was. She looked over once and I had the compulsion to show her what I was doing. “Look,” I said, holding up a rumpled sepia photo. “That’s my mother, holding me.” She nodded politely.
Weddings, picnics, First Communions. The Thanksgiving dinner before I was born, the Christmas after. Those who had gone before, frozen in youth, middle age, old age. Proclaiming proudly, “We were here.”
And thanks to photography, they still were.
My photo desk neighbor finished first, despite my occasional interruption with some faded, creased image. She knew I had had some problems with the scanner. As she packed up to go she asked kindly, “Can I get you someone from Electronics to help?”
“Only,” I said, “if they have a grief counselor.”