Sorting through memories and discarding the past
I’ve been in New York for the past week, packing up and moving out of the house I grew up in. My family’s lived in this house for 55 years, but our time here is over. My parents are both dead now – my mother died a few months ago, my father, 20 years ago – and so the house has been sold.
My sister and I have been sorting through this very full house, deciding what things we can’t bear to part with. Though we love this house and the lives we led here, in the end, the things that we will keep are very few, compared to the things that we will give away, the things that we will sell and, sadly, the things that we must finally throw away.
I have spent the past few days sorting through photographs, literally thousands of photographs, documenting four generations of our family.
The photos are a jumble, crammed into cardboard cartons, stuffed into envelopes that disintegrate when I open them. Some of the boxes seem adrift in time. Pictures of infants born this past year are mixed in with pictures of my grandparents, stiff in their Victorian finery, and pictures of my father in 1909, when he was but a few years old; pictures of two beloved uncles in their Army uniforms when they met in a small town in Germany in 1945; pictures of my mother when I was in high school – and I stop and realize that she was younger then than I am now.
I have thrown out, with many a twinge of guilt, thousands of photos. I am ruthless. I throw out photos of parties I never attended, pictures of people I never knew, who smoked and drank and had a good time 50 years ago. I throw out class photos from 1918. I throw out box after box of photos that my father took, all around the world, during the years when he and my mother traveled widely and often.
They are pictures of extraordinary places, but these hundreds and hundreds of photos of tropical beaches, ancient villages, city streets and Asian jungles are meaningless to me. And I realize that, despite the time and energy and money they represented, those pictures were essentially meaningless to my father too. When they came back from the photo lab, he would look at them once, perhaps twice, shake his head in regret that they weren’t better, and then stuff them back in the envelopes and eventually dump them in the cardboard boxes that wound up in our attic.
I realize, of course, that I have cardboard boxes just like those, filled with photos just like his, photos snatched in moments when I interrupted a trip to step back, remove myself from my life and take a picture that I would look at once, perhaps twice.
Yesterday, I took a break from sorting photos and went for a run. I ran through my old neighborhood, down streets I have known so well, for so long, that somehow I never learned their names. These were the streets I walked down day after day, year after year, on my way to elementary school, junior high school, high school, on my way to visit friends, on my way to play baseball in a vacant lot.
I ran past the houses of friends I haven’t seen in decades. I ran past the house of a girl who broke my heart in junior high school, past the house of a boy who was my best friend in the fourth grade and who now is world-famous for a song he wrote in the 1960s, past the house of another childhood friend who had suddenly and unexpectedly betrayed me in high school, shouting anti-Semitic insults at me, apparently to impress another boy who he had decided would be a more worthwhile friend than I.
I ran past houses I knew intimately, instinctively, but only from the outside, having run and walked past them so many times for so many years.
I know that sometime very soon, in a matter of weeks, when the deal is closed and the house is sold, I will leave and most likely never come back to this neighborhood again. Yet I will perhaps always have this perfectly detailed image in my mind of these streets, their every twist and curve, every house and tree along the way. It is strange to think that I will have this map, cut adrift from my life, a perfect knowledge of a place where I will never go again.
And yet, though that knowledge may become useless, it is the very opposite of the photos I have stored in cardboard boxes. Because the memories of those streets, memories I can neither edit nor discard, were not snatched in moments when I stepped back from my life; they were etched, slowly and deeply, because they were my life.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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