From a best-guess estimate, I’ve got about 800 photos scanned from my grandfather’s archive. This includes some (but, tantalizingly, not all) of the oldest family photos in his posession. The total haul is about 5.11GB of data. Some of those are dupes- I did the highest-resolution scans I could of the most important and rarest photos in the collection, which means that Thomas, my great-great grandfather, is preserved in ones and zeroes at 1200dpi for the long-term future.
I’ve got about eight hours of videotape of my grandfather reviewing his collection, some with and some without my father helping to draw stories out of him. He seemed to want to get to the latest photos immediately, and we had to explain to him several times that we were more interested in his earlier history, the stuff nobody knows about. Once he warmed up, he was rattling off the names of people who had us stumped. It was interesting to see where his memory was sketchy, though—the names of dogs, for example: On the farm, they had a long succession of barn animals with names like Soupy, Shnooky, and Pumpkin. It seemed like he identified every dog from every decade as “Judy”, an interchangeable and unknown (to me) mutt who died before my time.
Based on my experience, I have a few recommendations for anybody tackling this project in the future:
- Bring a scanner and scan everything and anything you can. Scan the fronts and the backs of the photos-often times there’s better stuff on the back than on the front.
- Have someone helping you draw the stories out of your relative. If a memory pops up about a particular photo (and you’ll see it on their face when it does) ask them about the place, time, people who were there, and how it made them feel. You’ll be amazed at what they remember, and that will lead you to more questions.
- Your relative may start out slow, but once you engage them, it’s amazing how much they look forward to the process. My grandfather is 90, and I think he was thrilled to have us talking to him about his history.
- Block out a lot of time. I had five days, and they went by quickly. Between filming four hours a day and scanning at night, I was exhausted at the end of each day.
On the way out of town, I stopped back in and showed him my photos of all the work done on the house since we moved in—something to make the housepainter in his blood proud. He peered into the LCD of my laptop as I took him through the rooms, asked questions about the work I’d done—clucking when I mentioned repairing plaster, and shaking his head at the hallway cieling—and nodded approvingly when I was done.
I’ve always felt that I never spent enough time with my grandparents. Because we were geographically the second-furthest grandkids from their house, visits in the summer and for holidays were usually quick and over before they’d started. Because I’m a weird half-social misanthrope, I have a difficult time keeping relationships strong and fresh, often letting the time between contact with important people in my life stretch on far too long. As a result, I always felt like an outsider at family gatherings, like the kid who stood at the back of the school dance and watched everyone else have a good time.
This visit changed that for the better, I think—not only because I recorded some of our family’s history, but because I began to change the way I see my family. Seeing my relatives in their younger years somehow made me feel closer to each of them, like I was watching over them as they grew up and formed families of their own. Instead of feeling like an outsider, I felt like I was more of a part of their lives, even if they were frozen in time on a piece of paper, especially as my grandfather rattled off names and told me which house they stood in front of and whose wedding they were attending. One of the resolutions I made for this year was to be a better son, husband, and friend in my relationships, and I made this trip the kickoff of that promise to my family. Spending time with my father and his father (and the rest of my family, between scanning pictures, ha-ha) meant a lot to me, and I think it meant a lot to each of them. More importantly, it wasn’t that hard to do. The hard part is in the follow-up, and that’s an ongoing process that’s going to take a lot of discipline, something I don’t have a lot of.
As I was leaving, I noticed the wind had blown the trail of my footprints in the snow away, as if I’d never been there at all. I’m glad I got the time to spend with my grandfather, and that he got to know me a little bit better; My next project is going to be collating the photos I have with the information I’ve got and try to put something together for him to share with his family—and to be there when he does.