I am working on cleaning out the home my parents occupied for 60 years. In emptying drawers and closets, I am learning a lot about the people who raised me and how they became who they are. And I am also learning how much I can never know.
Among the boxes of heirloom china and heirloom linens and old tax returns are my mother’s scrapbooks from high school and college, beginning with birthday cards she received when she was 7 years old from her father and the grandmother on her father’s side.
Now here is the interesting thing: According to the stories about her childhood told by my mother, she had only fitful contact with her father after her parents were divorced. Yet that early scrapbook contains gift cards for birthday and Christmas from “Daddy” dated for seven uninterrupted years. There is nothing else in the scrapbook from those seven years except the gift cards. Then they quit. The subsequent scrapbook contains all sorts of high school mementos, but no gift cards signed “Love, Daddy.” My guess is that my mother kept and cherished the cards from her childhood until she started her high school scrapbook. But at that point, did the cards and gifts stop coming? Did she turn against her father and grandmother and reject the presents? Then why save the cards? If only I had found the scrapbooks before my mother’s death, so she could tell me more of that story. But at least I have some of it, thanks to the paper record.
When my sister was putting together a slide show to display at our mother’s memorial, she discovered that there were almost no pictures of herself or our younger brother after the ages of 7 and 5, respectively. She figured out the problem – at that point in the late 1950s or early ’60s, my father switched to slide film. Stored in the hall closet are at least a dozen slide carousels, each holding 100 slides. But who has the technology or the patience to sort through over a thousand slides in this digital age? That portion of my mother’s life went dark at her memorial.
This gap in the record caused by lost technology has given me pause. I have 10 years’ worth of photos on my computer at this moment, plus another thousand or so backed up from my phone onto Google Photos somewhere in the cloud. But what will happen to those photos when I am gone? Will anyone browse through my computer before trashing it as obsolete? Will the photos continue to float around as little electronic bursts of static in the digital cloud forever, waiting for someone to unlock them again?
When I first started writing this column some years back, I searched the Los Altos Town Crier archive and found that the good old Crier had preserved mentions of me dating back to when I received an Outstanding Student Award in high school. At least part of me would survive in the digital archive. But to my consternation, when I recently wished to check a date in my personal Town Crier archive, I found that the Crier is economizing, and now only the most recent three years of the “Life of Allyson” can be accessed.
Fortunately, scrapbooking has never quite gone out of style. When I am gone, my children will find the scrapbooks from my elementary, high school and college years encased in plastic storage bins in the attic. And the deep file drawer in the upstairs desk contains a newsprint copy of every single piece I have published in the Town Crier. I won’t be lost in the cloud, because I’m leaving a paper trail.