I'm not entirely sure how I became fascinated with the preservation of my memories. I have a feeling it was an odd blend of a lot of disparate experiences.
Back in 2001 my mother and I helped move her parents into an assisted living facility. And in doing so it became our responsibility to not only set them up in their new apartment but to also organize and sell what remained of their possessions. Their house, their cars, and everything else.
My grandparents were both starting to experience symptoms of dementia and we all felt they would be safer with constant care and attention. The brain is a tricky animal when it decides to stop remembering things.
Our plan was to have my aunt and cousins drive my grandparents around Nebraska showing them important locations from their lives. Homes they had lived in. Places relatives had lived. Stuff like that. And while they were out experiencing their trip down memory lane my mom and I would gather a few select items from their home, hurriedly set them up in their new apartment at the assisted living center, and prepare to welcome Ken and Fran at their new home that evening. To try to make the transition as seamless as possible.
That first day of transition was intense. Fast, furious, and intense. We didn't do much organizing or sorting, we just grabbed what we thought Ken and Fran would feel most comfortable with, and raced to set everything up.
The following days were equally intense. My grandparents had lived in that home for over 40 years. And buried within the home and in the basement there was easily 100 years worth of life and life experiences. After all, this was the home my mother grew up in. And the home I had celebrated all of the Christmases of my youth in.
I felt like a bit of an archaeologist, digging through boxes and files. For some reason I found myself gravitating towards the pictures, and videos, and documents more than anything else. There were so many stories tucked away in the house. It was exhilarating to open dusty boxes and find sleeves of photographic negatives from the 1920s. I was looking at pictures that people hadn't seen in decades. Pictures that may have never been printed. Just the negatives. And it was addicting.
It is your chair and therefore becomes a piece of you. An external representation of you. You identify with the chair to the point where it is literally an extension of you. Crazy, but true.
It was equally addicting to find letters. And cards. There were boxes of Valentine's Cards from when my grandparents were in grade school. And autograph books filled with signatures from their fellow students. And cards they had written to each other. And letters. Lots of letters.
I also managed to find some stock certificates in a cabinet that happened to have their neighbors name on them. It was a bizarre find. I couldn't help but think, "what on earth are these stock certificates doing here?" And, as it turned out, they happened to be worth almost a million dollars. It’s hard to describe the look on someone’s face when you present them with valuable and long forgotten stock. I’ll just say, she was pumped.
I can't explain what happened to me, but this experience impacted the next decade of my life in a pretty major way. As we cleaned my grandparent's house I kept taking responsibility for more and more items. Old letters? I'll handle those. 100 years worth of photographic negatives? Yes please. Trinkets, toys, little odds and ends? Mine. Out of nowhere and almost instantly I became the family archivist and historian. There was a box full of family history and genealogy research. I took it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was already concocting a plan to digitize everything. Digitize everything and make it accessible on the web for all of my family to see and comment on. And for the past 16 years I've been working on that. And I'm no where near done. Some could say I've barely even started. It's a herculean effort.
I bought a top of the line Nikon film scanner first. And my parent's bought me a top of the line Epson flat bed scanner. I've also purchased terabyte after terabyte after terabyte of hard drives. And computers and monitors and software. All by myself I was building a little laboratory. And it became an obsession and a passion. I love loading up my film tray with a negative, feeding it into the scanner, and then eagerly waiting to see what displays on my screen. It's so much fun! Little snapshots frozen in time. Some images unseen for decades. It boggles my mind that most of the Kodachrome slide film has only been viewed once. My grandfather loaded up his camera, diligently took pictures with his discerning eye, and then displayed his work once, on a screen in his basement, for his family. Then, decades later, I found the boxes in the basement and I've been looking at his work ever since. I don't know what has compelled me in this way. It's the stories. I love looking for and finding the stories. I have much more appreciation for my grandparents now then I did when they were alive. I've been able to read their handwriting, see their pictures, watch their movies, and gain a little more insight into who they were. And ultimately, who I am. After all, I'm a descendant of these people. I view this mission as a bit of an exploration and excavation of where I came from. In some ways I'm searching for clues that might help me better understand who I am.
Here's a look at a couple of the projects that consume me and my time ...
Photographic negative scanning. The collection spans a little over a century. Most of the film is from my mother's side of the family. I have photographic negatives from both of my mother's grandfathers. The oldest images I have are tin type plates from the 1870s. It's been amazing to witness the evolution of film in my family's personal collection. I have the tin types, then there are large format negatives, medium format negatives, random Kodak Safety Film sizes, Kodachrome, 35mm, 16mm, and a few other random odds and ends.
VHS video digitization. I've digitized hundreds of VHS tapes. The earliest VHS dates from the mid 1980s. Practically every summer and Christmas of my existence exists on VHS.
Film reels. I haven't digitized the film reels yet. I have, however, digitized a few VHS copies of several reels of film. Most of the film is of my mother as a child. It's all fun to watch. And recently I’ve taken possession of 8mm and Super 8mm film from my childhood. I have several projectors, a few viewers and screens, and have been sitting in my home office watching old clips of myself lately. For me, the experience is breathtaking. I can see so much of myself in my son now, after having watched me at his exact same age.
Letters. The most impressive letter collections I have are from my mother's father's parents, and from my mother's parents. My great grandfather Emil and my great grandmother Mary Ella met at a wedding in the early 1900s. He from Nebraska and she from Missouri. They had a wonderful time at a wedding in Nebraska and then went back to their respective home towns. However, they struck up a relationship over letter correspondence and I have almost all of their letters. They wrote each other from 1910 up to about 1912. The last letter in the collection is a letter my great grandfather wrote to his sister announcing the birth of my grandfather. So far my mother has transcribed all of the letters, and I have digitized all of them. The next step will be publishing them.
Interestingly enough, my grandparents similarly corresponded with one another during their courtship. My grandfather fought in World War II. And while he was enlisted he and my grandmother wrote to one another extensively. And my family has all of those letters too. My aunt has been working to transcribe them all. And that has taken her the better part of the past several years.
As for me ... I'm equally fascinated with photography and moving images. My parents bought me a nice Canon 35mm camera right before my participation in Semester at Sea in the Fall of 2000. I shot extensively on that voyage and have since then digitized all of my film. I still have that camera and I occasionally shoot slide film with it. There's something about tangible film that I absolutely love.
A little over two years ago I bought a Synology NAS and absolutely love it. It is currently configured to 24TB, of which 20TB is currently being used.
Dumbledore's pensieve really spoke to me. I've been gathering little bits of memories for years now. I love all of the stories. What they all represent. Everything teaches me something. And I thrive off those discoveries and from that learning.
I've learned so much about my parents from the process of digitizing all of their film. The same is true of my grandparents. And the same is true of my great-grandparents. I've taken these deep exploratory missions into the heart of the past, my past, and I've uncovered a wealth of awareness and understanding. I've also learned a lot about myself. I've watched VHS footage of me as a child, as a pre-teen, and as a young adult. And I've changed a lot. In one lifetime. I've grown. In some ways good and in other ways not so good. And now as I raise children of my own I find it invaluable to have the awareness I've gathered from my family history digitization, archival, and preservation journey.