The Universal Notebook: Our lives in pictures

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If for some reason I ever have to rescue a few of my most prized possessions, I might well try to grab the 15 family photo albums stacked on the bookshelves in the kitchen.

Maybe because I have a lousy memory, I rely on those albums to remind me who we were.

The earliest pictures in the first album are a series of 20 black-and-whites on a contact sheet that capture a foxy 23-year-old Carolyn dressing up in my shirt, jacket and tie. The latest snapshots in the most recent album are from two weeks ago and show our grandchildren picking apples 36 years later.

Some folks in the family think I make a nuisance of myself by pulling out a camera at every family gathering, holiday, trip to the beach, day at the lake, sporting event, performance, wedding and party. They believe I should enjoy the moment rather than record it. But I have been diligent about documenting our lives both because I love old photographs and because my own parents were rather cavalier about taking pictures and preserving them in any organized way. My teen years are largely missing because my father was away at sea much of the time.

Down cellar there are two plastic tubs filled with family photos that have come to me as the oldest child of my generation. They range from a vintage portrait of a gray-bearded gent sitting in chair in front of an old house, flanked by women who might be his wife and daughter. A fox hound stares warily at the camera. I believe this may be my great-grandfather Ritter at home in Columbus, Ohio, but, as with almost all of the photos, I can’t be sure because no one ever organized and labelled them.

Among the photo treasures in the plastic tubs is a formal portrait of my Bampi Beem looking young, sharp and squared away in his World War I Army uniform. The leggings really make the man. There’s my mother at age 5 standing on the struts of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 as it sits on Old Orchard Beach waiting to be refueled by my Bampi Gibson.

Displayed on a shelf over the workbench in the basement is a 3-foot wide panorama of my father’s Deering High School Class of 1942, posed in front of Portland City Hall. Beside it is a yellowing triptych from the 1917 wedding of Mildred Morrison to Paul M. Gibson. Then there’s the badly wrinkled portrait of the entire crew of the seaplane tender U.S.S. Floyd’s Bay, posed on deck during the Korean War. My father is the young lieutenant in the first row caught pursing his lips.

But my favorite oldie but goodie is a souvenir photograph of my father and mother taken at the Graymore Hotel’s Arabian Cocktail Lounge, not long before they were married in 1948. My pretty young mother is wearing an engagement ring and smoking a cigarette. My handsome father looks sleepy but happy, his whole life still before him at 24, even with a world war behind him.

My own family photos lack the gravitas of the pictures that have come down to me from grandparents and parents. For one thing, black-and-white photographs make everything look more important; for another, mine are all amateur snapshots lacking historical context. Then, too, the acceleration of technology has tended to increase the quantity and decrease the quality of family photographs.

In another box in the basement are stashed the litter of negatives and drug store envelopes stuffed with snapshots that didn’t make the albums. There are also a few mongrel Polaroids now faded and emulsified, testament to an inferior technology. One from 1969 dimly depicts an old girlfriend standing on the hood of a 1956 DeSoto I was trying to sell. It blew a gasket before I could.

The pictures from our collective past range from classic gelatin silver prints and formal portraits from Loring Studio, Philip K. Frye Studio, and Wendell White Studio, to 1950s photo books with deckled edges, snapshots from film, instant prints and now digital images. The efficiency and economy of digital photography are at once amazing and frightening.

Someone would have to make a deliberate decision to dispose of the boxes containing the 20th century visual history of our family, but the entire 21st century fits on a handful of 8 GB memory cards. My careful chronicling of the graduations, weddings, births, birthdays, holidays and fun times of the past 16 years could be accidentally thrown out with disturbing ease.

That’s why, old fool that I am, I keep the photo albums up to date.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.