Old Photos and White Elephants

Seize the day! Those were the words I read on a recent Facebook post. I liked it. My day was cold, rainy and windy, so my seizing needed to be an inside task — so I picked the hardest I knew: clean out the photo albums — all of them. Over the years, photos seem to procreate; I can’t imagine we actually took all those photos. We had so many that we avoided looking through the albums. It had become painful. Maybe I can blame film cameras; we had a tendency to shoot all the frames, whether 24 or 36, and, not knowing what they would look like, order double prints to share with family.

Then, when the prints arrived we automatically placed them in albums — because we always had. In the moment, all the photos seemed alive and vibrant and full of memories, but within a few months they became stale, and within a year we had forgotten most of the details. After a decade or three or four, those meaningless photos grow to consume space and become white elephants.

We probably all have white elephants: items that you cannot use, cannot destroy and cannot give away due either to social pressure or guilt. They rise up around us, starve the oxygen from our lives and demand to be respected. I am fighting back. My goal is to remove 80% of our photos. Yes, that’s sacrilege, an unthinkable task that only an insensitive, uncaring, monster would do. Yet, here I sit, surrounded by stacks of photos and documents, planning to eliminate at least 80% of them. And I am elated.

No, I’m not heartless; over time, we accumulate photos of no interest to others. Does anyone really want to see a photo me at three months old, lying naked on a blanket in the yard? I do hope not, but if they do, is it my obligation to preserve that racy image for their once-in-a-lifetime view? I think not. What about those vacation photos with no dates or information about the location or who was in the photo? Those can probably be trashed. Simple it sounds; simple it is not.

Starting such projects is one thing, finishing them quite another. Within hours I discover the monster; it is not I, but the stack of photos and documents, a monster that seems beyond control, beyond managing: unconquerable. In the midst of the clutter, I discover long-forgotten memories, the photos we treasure but hadn’t seen in years or decades. However, I also discover that revisiting the past can be painful and cause one to dwell there instead of facing today and anticipating tomorrow. A new thought emerges: why do we do this? Why take photos of events in our lives? An irrelevant question? Maybe not.

My dear grandfather was born in 1864 and there are only two photographs of him of which I am aware. History books tell us he lived through interesting times, yet he never had the clutter of a photo album to deal with. My belief is that whatever was important in his life was in his memory, with no need for color photographs, photo albums, or other media. His life was his and so were his memories. The loss is that those memories died with him, but I have no right to them, anyway. There was a time, years ago, when I took a camera to every family event or vacation outing. I no longer do that. What I discovered was that operating the camera removed me from the experience I wanted to save; my camera was capturing other people in the experience, but I was missing. And, gathering everyone together for a group photo only further distanced everyone from enjoying the event itself.

My goal has changed. My earlier goal of removing 80% was focused solely on quantity, and my new goal is to salvage photos that reflect an event or a memory to preserve. I may still end up with the same number of photos, but I will know that those being kept are precious to me and my wife. Life is too short to focus on maintaining visual history and I will feel a huge weight lifted, once I finish this. I know little of scrapbooking, but that seems the solution I seek: preserve history and focus on life. I feel better already.

’53 Jag

53JagXK120Beautiful it was, a white 1953 Jaguar XK120 roadster, easily the iconic car of my youth. A two-seater, leather seats, wooden dash, four-speed, big engine (dual carbs and overhead cams) with raucous exhaust, exciting lines and a definite attention getter. And it was for sale. Did I want it? Does an owl hoot? Does a cow moo? I craved it; my brain drooled at the thought of it. The newspaper ad stated the price at $700. The world of bank loans was foreign to me, but I had a my first real job and was confident I could buy this dream car.

The year was 1960; I had just finished basic military training in San Antonio, Texas, and was spending a few days at the home of my dear sister and her husband, who lived in that city. My first assignment would be in Syracuse, New York, a distance of approximately 1,900 miles from San Antonio. My monthly gross pay was $89 and the Air Force had just given me $100 to cover travel to Syracuse. I was rich. The trip in an open sports car would be exciting. Elated? Obviously.

The test drive I’ll always remember, easing the car into first gear and moving into traffic. Here I was, driving this gorgeous car, living a dream; it could be MINE. I returned to my sister’s house to figure how to gather the money. Still under the influence of my parents, I called Dad for his okay in the purchase. He gave a quick “NO” to my inquiry. No? No??? I was crushed. How could he say that to what I dearly desired? My brother-in-law then gave me my first push toward adulthood; he said it was really my decision: I was of age, I could secure the loan, I was no longer living under my father’s roof. Seeking Dad’s opinion was one thing; seeking his approval was another.

That was an important lesson for me, a lesson that all young people need to hear, preferably from their parents. I would no longer seek his approval for my life decisions, but I also felt it would be an insult to act against what I had just asked of him. I would not buy the Jaguar; I would use the $100 travel money to fly to Syracuse. Done.

Of course, it was not done. Missing the opportunity to buy that Jaguar would haunt me for many years. I would punish myself (thinking that I should have purchased it, that I should not have talked to my father about it), and praise the wisdom of my brother-in-law. For years I felt it was all “Dad’s fault” that I didn’t experience ownership of that Jaguar. However, with time, I decided to revisit the issue. No one should ever let something this small continue to be a sore spot between someone you love.

So, I revisited the issue, assuming I had made the purchase despite Dad’s warning. In so doing I would have left San Antonio penniless and, assuming no problems (such as mechanical issues, flat tires and other unforeseen possibilities) I would be facing 1,900 miles of driving; that would have been 1,800 more miles in one trip than I had ever done, requiring motel stays, gas, food and oil (the Jag required 12.5 quarts of the stuff). The trip alone would have cost over $300 in 1960 prices, and that was before interstate highways, before cell phones, before credit cards, before ATM machines, before readily available cheap fast-food restaurants, and more than a decade before readily available parts for foreign cars. And I was penniless. Any problem, no matter how small, would have required calling Dad to come help me or to send money, and that alone would delay showing up on time at my new assignment — and the military frowns on being late. So, Dad was right, after all. Now, to work on my attitude about it.

Dad was right, but for the wrong reasons. And my dear brother-in-law was wrong, but for the right reasons. I love them both. Dad was right, in that it would have been a poor decision, but wrong in ignoring my feelings. Had he shared his concerns about the maintenance costs and travel risks I think I would have grudgingly agreed with him, but he never discussed the issue. My brother-in-law was wrong in overlooking the costs and risks I would face, but right in emphasizing that it was my decision to make and that I needed to become an adult. So, I learned from them both.

Years later, our dear teenage son wanted to buy an old MGB sports car, one that wouldn’t even run and had to be towed. I remembered that ‘53 Jag and the surrounding emotions. We could have refused, but we let him buy the old car. This was a bit of life to experience, not deny. The MGB sat for weeks in our garage as we fixed the brake lines and other problems. That was a lesson in itself. And there were smiles on all our faces the day he drove it into the road. He owned the car for only a short while before getting rid of it, but he has nothing but good memories of the experience. Just today, he asked if we had a photo of that old MGB. We do. And listening to him talk of it, a big smile crossed my face. Something done right.