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Grandma Bette's Albums

My grandmother was the chronicler of our family history, and she did this with photographs. She documented the vacations, birthday parties, and weddings over many years, and archived these photos in albums numbered one through [something like] forty, each one labeled on the spine with its number. When she found a particular style of album that she liked, she would buy five or more at a time, whatever she could afford or however many the store had on hand, knowing that she would fill them over time. The result was an ever growing catalogue of the life of her family.

As a child, I remember being in my grandmother’s house, and as I waited for those adult conversations that seemed to last forever to finally pass, I would entertain myself by pulling down an album from the shelf and leafing through the glossy plastic pages with images of myself and of my brother, or of exotic locations and family members only distantly known. Her practice of taking pictures and keeping albums has undoubtedly influenced my own practice of doing the same.

These albums have acquired a sacred status in our family. At least that’s my perception, being one of the last, and that is youngest, members of the family. Since her passing a number of years ago, the question of the albums has been one most commonly asked, and perhaps the set of objects most coveted.

A few years ago, I was trusted with a few of these albums, and my intention was to scan each image and return the albums quickly. Good intentions, but four children, two job changes, and two moves later, the task was still not done. I’ve been working on the project again lately, and after four years I’ve finished that small part. The four albums scanned so far can be seen here. 

The work of scanning, cropping, and labeling each picture has been enjoyable. It has given me a lot of time to slowly and deliberately reflect on the people in these images, mostly of my family. It has also caused me to spend a great deal of time thinking about my grandmother, seeing some very small slice of life through her eyes. These are the subjects she chose to point a camera at. These are the images she chose to include in an album. Her hands slid each of these photographs into its sleeve. I am in a sense following in her footsteps down this short path.

Her choices have been interesting to revisit. Pictures of familiar family members are always a fascinating to work on. Pictures of her then coworkers, various pets from childhoods past, snapshots of landscapes, and old and ancient relatives whom I do not recognize are much less so.

Many questions also come to mind as I peer through each small window. Where was this taken? Who’s sandaled foot is in this picture and also in this one? What was the occasion? Who are these people? Most of the pictures in our photo albums have been taken by me, and it makes sense to me that Betty is the one who took most of the pictures in her albums, but there are some events and some styles of photographs that make me wonder whether she took them or if they were taken by someone else; if so, by whom?

There are many of pictures of our relatives in California. This is curious to me because the pictures make it look like my grandparents traveled to California with some regularity. But I also understand that they were what today we would call “low income.” How could they have afforded it? Is it also possible that such trips are overrepresented in the albums because more pictures are always taken when traveling than of daily life?

The words of Paul Simon’s Kodachrome also come back to me: “they give us those nice bright colors, give us the greens of summer, makes you think all the worlds a sunny day.” Conflict, hurt, ignorance, and broken-ness, all of those messy aspects of real life are absent in photos. Only intelligent and capable expressions, smiling faces, and birthday parties make it in to the album. It looks like anything less than pure happiness and contentment are utterly absent from the lives of everyone pictured. It is a good way to remember.

Four albums done. Thirty six to go. 

Posted on Monday, September 7, 2009 at 10:27AM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | Comments4 Comments

Reader Comments (4)

Wow, I'm sure that was an amazing experience! You know those were some of my fondest moments there in the front room in between the re-bounder ,and turning those glossy pages under the dinning table. So many good times!!!
September 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay
Some of the pictures of that young boy (I presumed to be you!) uncannily looked like Sarah Avery!
Thanks for posting them.
September 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDad
I agree with Dad, Sarah looks so much like the pictures of you as a little boy!! Wow! -- Jennifer
September 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer
Brian, thank you so much for this post. It means all the world to me. Concerning your questions: I'd be delighted to answer as many as I'm able. The old saying is true: "Whenever the matriarch of the family dies (ESPECIALLY if she was also the family Historian), it's the equivalent of the Town Library burning to the ground." Thank you for your valuable time spent scanning these photographs so that all may enjoy. Love you son.
September 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMom

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