Sorting photos launches trip of a lifetime

Posted Feb. 01, 2010, at 7:32 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:25 a.m.

Picture this: Vintage photo albums and framed photographs piled in two 20-year-old cardboard boxes. For the last four or five years the boxes sat on the floor of a closet with a high moisture content, causing the albums to mildew. When I discovered the mildew factor, I took the albums home with me and stored them in a cool, dry place.

Years ago, I sat down with my mother and she identified people and places in the photographs, and I made notations on the backs of each one.

Because of the mildew, I took the photos out of the albums and picture frames, and put them in acid-free photo-pocket pages in simple ring binders.

My first task, once the photos were free of the old albums, was to sort them into categories, then chronologically. The photos range in age from the 1920s to a bit beyond the 1990s.

I began with the photos of life on my grandfather’s farm in Harmony, where Herricks had lived since 1815. I added photos of my mother’s life as she grew from girlhood to womanhood, on the farm and in the village where she lived with her grandparents. I added sections for each of my mother’s four brothers and their wives. In the mix are photos of my grandfather cutting rock maple blocks to be sold to a mill that made bowling pins, a picture of a haying crew on the farm, a photo of the farmhouse and one of an uncle holding a calf. Included in this category are my mother’s graduation photos, photos of her brothers in World War II Army uniforms and photos of my grandfather wearing an overcoat and felt fedora on the day he left for California in 1939 or 1940 to visit an older son.

The next stack of photos I sorted were of my brother, sister and me, from birth to marriage and a bit beyond. One of the photos is of my brother at age 3 playing in a little pen my father constructed in the yard of a camp in Brighton where my parents lived the summer of 1945. The camp had no running water and no electricity, but my brother’s hair is combed, his clothes are immaculate and the diapers (mine) hanging on the line behind him are snowy-white.

Another photo shows me at age 3 in the yard with my mother. It is summer 1948 and I am wearing what was known then as a sunsuit. My mother has on a ruffled cotton dress and her hair is combed away from her face in a fluff of curls. She is bending over me to fix the braid in my hair. Laundry is hanging on the line behind her, and my doll carriage is parked beside the elm tree.

Another favorite photo is the one of my mother sitting on a running board with my infant sister in her lap — I call it the Madonna of the Truck.

The cats and dogs photos I sorted through were almost as interesting as the people pictures. Many of the photos have the pets’ names scribbled on them — the dogs King, Bitsy and Cocoa; and the cats Spike, Black Cat, Morris, Felice and Broom. Some of the names of the cats in the 1930s and 1940s photos haven’t survived, but their personalities are so well preserved photographically, I can almost hear them purr.

A subcategory in the picture sorting process demanded that I make a separate album for the hunting, fishing and trapping photos, starring my father and my brother, the “sports” my fathered hired out to guide, and my uncles. There are photos of fat trout lined up in a row, men sitting around a campfire, my father paddling a wood-and-canvas canoe and close-up of him wearing his signature green felt hat folded in a Smokey Bear peak.

One of the tasks I faced as I pulled the old albums apart was to liberate newspaper clippings secured with aged cellophane tape to the manila pages of a scrapbook. Acid in the paper had leached out and turned the clippings yellow, making them fragile, but it was possible to salvage them. I used a small, sharp knife to cut the tape. The clippings are the only record I have of the day my 4-year-old sister received an inoculation at a public health clinic, the record-size beaver my father trapped, or the fact that the Quimby Elementary School in Bingham opened in 1950 and mine was the first-ever kindergarten class in town.

The most important thing I learned as I sorted through the photos was this: Write the names of the individuals in the photo on the back. Your descendants will thank you.

Snippets

• “My Journey: 20 Years of Art Quilts,” an exhibit of original, collage construction quilts of artist Natasha Kempers-Cullen of Topsham, will be on display through Maine Fiberarts, 13 Main St. in Topsham. For more information, call 721-0678 or visit www.mainefiberarts.org.

• The Pine Tree Kneedlers Guild will sponsor a Learn to Knit Workshop 12:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, at The Charles Inn, 20 Broad St. in Bangor. The cost is $15, free to guild members. Afternoon tea and handouts are included.

Attendees will learn how to make a slip knot, cast on, knit a foundation row, how to knit and purl, and how to bind off.

For more information, call guild president Cheryl Zeh at 943-6909.

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