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Monday, June 21, 2010

Of Photographs and Memories

A picture is worth a thousand words. The old adage rings true even more today in our high tech world of ingenious devices that snap photos and whip them around the world in seconds. A single image such as in a photograph freezes the essence of the moment. Faces and places are forever held still in time. A simple, crinkled old snapshot taken many years ago captures a time or a place or people that may have vanished from our lives and nothing can ever bring them back again. A photograph reminds us of what we forget. It's a touchstone to our past that enriches our lives.

For the past week, I have been reminded of the priceless value of old family photographs. Last winter our home suffered a devastating flood as a result of a broken pipe. The walls and ceiling literally fell down because of the force of the water. We were out of town. But our neighbor who lives in the attached condo next to us...told us when we returned home that he heard the pipe break and that he heard the water rushing through the pipes nonstop. And yet he never notified anyone in the management company or any of our many neighbors. If he had told somebody right away, the water could have at least been turned off and our home would not have been so severely flooded. As it was, this man sat by and heard the water run for over five days...without doing a single thing about it. It was only when we returned home that we discovered the damage...and found the water was still running.

But this story is not about the apathetic old coot who lives next door. This is about the importance of treasured family photographs. After the flood, we eventually had the house repaired and restored good as new. All the wet, soggy stuff was thrown out. And the water was sucked out with special hoses. Later, water damage restoration specialists came with nifty little meters and checked and rechecked for the slightest evidence of mold or mildew or even a spec of dampness. They found nothing. We felt a great sense of relief. Not a trace of mold or mildew was apparent anywhere. Or so we thought....

Last week, I just happened to be searching through several large plastic bins where I stored all my old photo albums that date back 50 years and more. As I delved deeper into the containers, I saw it. I smelled it. The dreaded MOLD. Dank, ugly fungus spores encased all my photo albums. It looked like somebody had thrown a shovel full of slimey black dirt into the bins. All the albums were sopping wet.

It was as if an arrow had pierced my heart. I instinctively knew that most, if not all of my precious photographs were ruined. The visual memories of our entire past life no longer existed. We could replace the carpet, replace the walls, replace the ceiling. We could buy new furniture and other tangible items. But old family photographs are simply irreplaceable. 

After a great deal of sobbing and wringing of hands, I lugged all the bins out into our garage. For the past week I have been meticulously going through every single determine if any of the photos are worth saving. I've been snapping pictures since I was ten years old. And I saved every one of them. No jumbled shoe boxes for me. I stored all my photos very neat and tidy, labeled and organized in ancient, bulky, over-sized, old-fashioned leather albums. In recent years, I've been uploading photos to my computer. But I had saved thousands of hard copy Kodak moments from over the past 50 years.

Miraculously I was able to salvage some of the pictures. But most of them were lost to water and mold damage. It turns out that when water splashes on a photo, it literally washes the color away leaving nothing but empty white paper. And so it is that all of my college yearbooks had to be trashed. Tons of photos of family gatherings, first communions, Christmases, our kid's first days of school, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, sailboat trips, vacations, beloved pets, various houses we've lived in over the years, weddings...all destroyed. 

Photographs are more than preservations of the past. They are our link to people and places and times that we hold dear. We immediately recall how we felt when we look at old pictures. Just for an instant, we are able to touch people from our past lives...loved ones no longer with us. Friends we haven't seen in decades. We can see ourselves as we once were. We can watch our children growing up. We can see our elders, grand parents and great greats. The funny clothes they wore. What their houses looked like. Their furniture. Their old jalopy cars. Photographs have the uncanny ability to restore our youth, if only for a moment. Photographs rescue time. They represent a fleeting history of our lives. 

I feel like a part of my life has been stolen. I feel like my past has been plundered. My memories ransacked. These old family photos showed people I loved with goofy looks on their faces or serious scowls or happy-go-lucky grins embracing life at the instant the photo was snapped. The people, their poses, their expressions, the surroundings, the stories behind the me they are paper treasures that are now lost forever. 

In the hit 70's song Kodachrome, Paul Simon wrote:
They give us those nice, bright colors
They give us the greens of summer
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, Oh yeah
Mama don't take my Kodachrome away
Mama don't take my Kodachrome away.

I will dearly miss those cozy, old Kodachromes...those sunny, bright colors and the faded black and white snapshots of years past. But when all is said and done, I still have those memories pressed between the pages of my mind and sweetened with the passage of time. Still and all, my old family albums were like a sumptuous feast of priceless memories that I could see and touch and recollect and laugh over and reminisce about with family members. Now I start with a clean slate. I have a new camera and a passionate create and preserve brand new memories for our children and grandchildren. I will store them all online...with plenty of backup. OK now...everybody smile and say: Kodachroooomme.

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Coffeypot said...

Back in the mid 90’s lightning hit my house and it caught fire while I was away. I didn’t get home till after midnight and the whole top of my house was gone. After I found out the neighbors and the firemen had saved my dogs, my only concern was for my pictures. Everything else could and was replaced, but you can never replace those moments in time. I’m sorry you lost so much. It’s like losing a slice of you life. Hugs!

Unknown said...

My heart aches for your loss. When fire ravaged my brother's house, he cried over the lost baby pictures of his kids, by then taken away by the mother. A picture can capture a single, fleeting moment, and let us relive it over and over again. What a shame the man next door didn't think to DO SOMETHING. He probably feels very foolish now and regrets his inaction.

ReformingGeek said...

That's so true. Old photos are not replaceable.

I'm glad you were able to salvage a few of them.

Judie said...

OMG! I LOVE that song! We just got a picture of our third grade class. I had to sharpen it up a little so Rod could actually identify himself, but I knew exactly where I was sitting when it was taken.

I am sooooo sorry for your loss! My best friend's first house caught fire and all of her wedding pictures we destroyed. What a heartbreak!

I once had my wallet stolen at work, and I begged the thief to keep the money and return my children's baby pictures. A week later, I got them back in the mail. I ahve never kept pictures in my wallet since. said...

Yes, pictures are like extensions of ourselves. I'm so sorry you lost all of those. I am so glad you are starting anew, and that you could preserve a few of the old photos.
Keep faith.

joanne lee said...

I've lost photos before and I know how devastating it can be. I'm glad that you have good memories locked away in the recesses of your mind though!

diney said...

Old photos are certainly to be cherished; also old letters. I had the first letter my husband wrote to me stolen and I've never seen it again.He wrote it to me when I was 12 and he was 15 (!!)

Marla said...

I completely understand. The thing that broke my heart the most when we were hit with a tornado was losing our photographs. I'm so sorry this happened to you.

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