Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]
A few weeks ago my wife and I were watching Noah, our two-year-old grandson, at our house. He was playing with some pots and pans on the floor of our pantry room, totally absorbed. I stepped out of the room for half a minute to refill my coffee, and the next thing I knew there was a crash and Noah was screaming. Either from Noah’s pulling at it or from sheer bad luck, a set of shelves had separated from the wall, raining down boxes, bags, jars, and cans. Ginny, my wife, came rushing in, back from the bathroom, zipping her pants as she ran. She scooped Noah up and took him to the sink. At least one of those cans or jars must have hit him because he was bleeding pretty heavily from a cut in his scalp. Ginny cuddled Noah and cleaned him up a bit, but when she saw how much he was bleeding she told me to bring the car around to go to the ER.
Since Ginny had the Noah situation under control, I had been spending the few minutes since the mishap taking care of other things, mostly resealing bags, putting jars of mayo and simmer sauce that had come open into the fridge, and so on. When she said we were going to the ER I spent maybe thirty more seconds putting a chicken we had been cooking into a Pyrex bowl and refrigerating it, and finding a gallon Ziploc for the flour, which had opened and was getting all over everything. Ginny had barely gotten Noah fastened into his car seat before I came out and took the wheel.
Everything turned out fine. We hardly even lost any food. But now my wife is mostly not speaking to me. I am perplexed and a little annoyed. What should I do?
Shunned in Short Hills
Let me get this straight. Your wife goes off to the bathroom and leaves you alone with a toddler in a pantry full of all kinds of loose stuff on some sort of poorly-attached shelving, and you decide to leave the room, too, and refill your coffee at that same moment. Then, when the shelving comes off and rains full cans and glass jars onto your grandchild, you leave your wife alone to deal with soothing him, giving him first aid, deciding what to do, and putting him into his car seat. You do not get to the car until after she has brought him out and fastened him in because you are so concerned about cleaning up and saving your chicken and flour. And I can’t help but notice that, although you let me know about the fate of your food, you tell me nothing about Noah. (Stitches? Bruises? X-rays? Concussion?)
What you should do is apologize. Tell your wife that you are really sorry you messed up and didn’t rush to help her and Noah. If you can find even a grain of truth in this idea, you might add that you were so confident in her ability to handle a crisis that it clouded your judgment. Promise her that you will never again leave Noah alone for a minute in an area that is not fully toddler-proof, which means just about everywhere. Swear that you will never leave her in the lurch like that again. Reassure her that Noah’s safety and wellbeing are your highest priorities. Keep all those promises. And get better shelving.
Family photographs are weighing me down. Not only do I have boxes and bulky albums full, I also have boxes of photos from my parents and grandparents. It seems like generation after generation, photos are being passed down but not enjoyed. For some of the real oldies, with ladies in feathered hats and men alongside Model T’s, I don’t even know who the people are!
My daughters were born in the 1990s, so their baby and childhood photos are not digital. Like many parents then, I often took three or four (or five) photos of special moments, hoping that one shot would turn out well when the film was developed. Then I’d select the 2-for-1 print special at Walgreen’s to have extra images to send to family members. I know I’m not alone in this! But as a result, an entire hallway closet is filled with photo boxes, and albums are stashed under a bed in the guest room. Each time I walk by that closet, I think, “What am I going to do with all these photos?” My bigger fear is, “How am I going to face all of these?” It’s hard to look at pictures of my children when they were little. That precious time went by so quickly, and as a younger person, I didn’t realize just how quickly it would go. Sometimes a picture fills me with regret over past choices and struggles.
I want to live in the present and enjoy my life as it is, right now. The photos and albums are heavy and taking up too much space. Packed away in a closet or under a bed, no one can even see or enjoy them, so what’s the point of having saved them (and all the negatives)? They’re also occupying mental space and energy. Yet when I’ve tried to sort and throw some away, it’s been painful. How can I put a picture of my child or a beloved grandmother in the trash? There’s a reason Marie Kondo says to leave photos for last. I’d be grateful for your advice on ways to accomplish this overwhelming task so that I can finally complete it and move on.
Walking Down Too Many Memory Lanes in Mamaroneck
I’m in the same boat—maybe even worse off, since I have somehow ended up with not just three generations of my own family’s photos, but also several photo collections from collateral branches. So I could not be more empathetic. And, despite not yet having even tried to deal with the accumulation of photographs in my own house, I do have some recent experience sorting somebody else’s that might prove useful. Earlier this summer my niece and I spent two days and three long evenings in Florida, sorting through fifty years’ worth of photographs from an incapacitated relative (let’s call her Great Aunt Lucy). There were hundreds and hundreds of photographs and negatives in boxes, and more albums than I care to recall. As we went along, we developed some rules and rhythms, and ended up not hating the process, which relied heavily on banter and ice cream sandwiches. We also got fairly good results, winnowing the collection down to two boxes for Lucy herself, who is in assisted living; a few choice photos and albums for other family members and friends; and only two cartons for me and my nuclear family, which was about ten cartons fewer than I thought I would feel obligated to bring home to my already-overloaded shelves and closets.
But we had an advantage over you: our backs were to the wall. The house that had held these photographs was being sold, so we had to do something with them right away. And our choices were not so fraught. Once we had set aside what we thought Lucy would want to keep—a fairly easy process since we both knew her well—fewer than 300 of the remaining photos were unique images of our own parents or children, which I have to admit we found almost impossible to relinquish. As you imply in your letter, facing certain photos can be the worst hurdle, which we solved by giving them cursory glances and then keeping them all.
It sounds as if you really want get started, but are not yet at the back-to-the wall stage—I assume you aren’t expecting any terrifying in-laws to move in and demand all the space under the guest-room bed?
Sound like you need a plan and maybe also a prod. The best way to begin, I think, is by reviewing what you are trying to accomplish, then dividing this undertaking into smaller, more manageable, less emotion-laden tasks.
As for your overall goals: it sounds as if you want to prune your collection while saving the photos and albums that you, your family, and your descendants are likely to find most meaningful and entertaining. You want what’s left to be easier to access. You would like to free up some of that storage space. And you’d like the process to be as painless as possible—dare I say, even to produce some happy moments?—and to leave you with a sense that you have done all you need to do, so that you can move on.
Those goals all seem clear enough. But they do not go far toward resolving the specifics of what to save, and what to let go. Decisions about what’s worth keeping obviously have to be yours, but I can offer some guidelines you might use as you winnow. I am confident that you’ll figure things out as you go along; that, the more deeply you go into the process, the clearer your mind will be about where you want to end up and how you will get there. That has been the case for me, my niece, and everybody I know who has spent a chunk of time sorting through photos and other memorabilia. (Well, there was my cousin Harold, who totally lost it and finally just abandoned all his family photos on a street corner—which is how, thanks to a woman who found me online, I ended up with one of my collateral-branch collections. As it happened, some of the images he jettisoned turned out to be family treasures.)
Now for tactics. Here are some ways to divide your job into smaller jobs:
—by date or era
—by source (who took or collected the photos)
—by subject (which person, place, family, major event)
—by format (size, color vs. black and white, album vs. loose, etc.)
—by order stored (or easiest to reach)
Or you may just want to start with the place in your house you most want cleared out, like that area under the bed.
Try to sort either by era or by source, and start with whichever time or source strikes you as easiest to get through. From your letter, it looks like the “real oldies” would be a smart place to begin, since you do not seem especially attached to those Model T’s and unidentifiable people and so on. If photos or even whole albums have no meaning for you or your kids, by all means dispose of them: throw them out or, if you think they may have value as antique objects or as records of a time and place, give them to a store that sells old photographs or send them to the relevant local historical society or library
And if getting rid of most or all of your “oldies” seems extreme, there are less radical solutions. For example, just taking photos out of albums, especially those enormous old ones, can drastically cut the storage space needed. When we were in Florida my niece and I saved a few old albums: two that were charming and had worn well, one that we thought my brother would like, and one that was so very old it felt like a historical artifact. The other old photos didn’t seem to lose much by not being in albums, and took up so much less space once liberated that we ended up saving far more of the photos themselves than we had originally planned. This spared us considerable regret and time-consuming indecision, since we are both hopelessly sentimental about old things, even pictures of Gibson girls who, for all we know, were just cousins of some in-law or other.
We did toss some of the loose oldies, though, mostly blurry images of unfamiliar places or multiple shots of the same unidentified person. Since my niece and I represent two generations in our family, we decided that if a photograph didn’t move either of us or inspire any curiosity, everybody else in our family would probably feel the same way.
After you do the “real oldies,” I suggest moving on to the slightly less oldies. That’s what we did, anyway, culling the photos taken during, or shortly before, my childhood years. My niece and I found that the photos from this era were the easiest to sort.
We saved almost all of the earlier, mostly black and white, photos from this era, partly because they were beautiful and taken by my father, a gifted darkroom photographer, but also because there were not too many of them, and most were photos of us or of people we loved.
(By the way: are there also photographs from your spouse/partner’s forebears under that bed? If so, I strongly urge you to encourage your spouse to sort them, and to leave them unsorted if that doesn’t happen.)
Lucy’s other photographs were mostly snapshots from the past forty or fifty years. After getting rid of all duplicate prints (except for a few standouts we set aside for our respective siblings), we decided to toss all negatives and almost all storage CDs, since anybody who ever wanted to could make perfectly adequate copies directly from the prints. Then we tossed all photos of people we did not know and were pretty sure neither Lucy nor any of our other our living relatives knew, either.
By the way: One thing we did NOT do was label any of the photos we kept. Even though we were pressed for time, I now think that this was a bad mistake. Don’t do what we did! Google and YouTube can show you how to mark photos safely with a pen. You will be doing a service to your descendants, and preventing your current family from becoming the 2070 equivalent of those anonymous ladies in feathered hats.
Next to go were most of the travel photos, including almost all the famous landmarks, natural wonders, and museum art. The rule was: if you can get more or less the same image from an outside source, toss it. As we got tired, we broadened this rule, and started throwing out all artistically meh photos of places and objects, with a very few exceptions like wedding dresses, interior shots of beloved former homes, and a few cars we considered members of the family. Speaking of members of the family, we surprised ourselves by agreeing to throw out most of the pet snapshots, mostly because there were so many of them: pictures of one cat in particular, now dead these forty years and more, made a pile twice the size of the pile for photos of my father. We also found that cats, and some dogs, do not have all that many different facial expressions, at least not in amateur photographs.
Even after we crammed about fifty more photos into Lucy’s boxes, this process still left us with three times as many recent snapshots as my niece or I wanted to keep. We kept sorting and discarding until our choices started to seem totally arbitrary. So we gave up: but we had gotten down to just a couple more cubic feet than we had wanted to take home, and that was good enough for us. I drove back up 95 feeling like a silver medalist and told myself that it was sensible to have a cushion of photos in case in case Lucy decided she needed more fading snapshots of some dog or prom or lighthouse or other.
I hope this narrative of my recent adventures in photo wrangling has encouraged you and given you a few ideas. But I see that I haven’t really addressed those photos of your children and how to choose among them, which sounds like the most serious problem, the one that gets a person thinking in terms of Sisyphus’s boulder and Hercules’s labors and, of course, the Ancient Mariner’s albatross. My Florida experience is not much help here, since we found relatively few unique photos of the people we most cherish; and, as I admitted back in the distant past when I began this letter, I have not yet tackled the nuclear-family photos in my own closet. But it occurs to me that I am writing this as an advice columnist, not a road-trip memoirist or role model, and I do have a few more suggestions to offer in my capacity as the wise June. These apply to all your photos, but especially to those evocative, heartstring-tugging photos of your kids.
First, choose a day to get started, and set aside a block of time: day, weekend, recurring shorter periods, whatever works. Mark your paper calendar in red and your digital one with dramatic emoji, announce your plans to your friends, put in for a personal day; in short, do what you need to make the starting time stick. You can set a deadline as well as a starting point, if you want, but I suspect that imposing any but the loosest deadline on a project like this will only add to your stress, making it harder to begin at all and easier to abandon if you do. Once started on the project, though, it will probably take on a momentum of its own – and even if this does not happen, you will have made some headway or least assessed the situation. Sort of like grading papers. Or writing.
If you have tried to break down your task and still feel daunted, consider further subdividing it. If you are sorting by era and have, say, four boxes of family photos from 1990-2000, you might aim to do two of them per session. If you finish early, you can always pull out more boxes.
Second, consider getting somebody to assist you. The right person can be a great help getting you started, keeping you moving, and lessening your anxiety and indecision along the way. Having an adult child or even a supportive friend with you should help insulate you from the regrets you say you sometimes feel when confronting certain of these images.
The problem here, of course, is that you have to find somebody who is willing to do the job and won’t actually make it harder for you. Have you thought about asking one or more of your kids to help? My niece was just about perfect for the Florida photos: a close relative, but from another generation. She also had similar, but not identical, attitudes about what sorts of images should be preserved and why. Also important: neither of us tried to talk the other one into discarding any photographs we wanted to keep – which, happily, lessened the tension and actually made many photos easier to sort and discard.
I can see why you might feel this is a job you would rather undertake alone, but do consider the idea, if only because scheduling a session with one or more other people would be a great prod to get started and keep going. If you can’t find anybody, or don’t want anybody, to help with the actual sorting, you could invite a friend or relative over just to sit with you, for moral support. Sort of like grading papers at Starbucks. Or working in a writer’s room. Your moral supporter could bring knitting, perhaps, or a guitar.
Third, do as much no-brainer culling as you can (see Florida, above):
—Toss most if not all negatives of your old Walgreen’s prints and similar nonprofessional color prints. (If you have any photo CDs from the post-film, pre-smartphone era, you might want to take the time to upload them; even if you never look at the uploads again, having a backup is reassuring. Or don’t bother. We didn’t.)
—Remove obvious duds and photos you are sure nobody will care about. At the same time, remove all duplicate prints and put them in a separate pile. At some point—I favor doing this as I go along, but that might slow you down, or you might want to evaluate the whole pile first—decide which duplicate prints you think other people might want, and throw out the rest.
—As you take photos out of envelopes and boxes, and any albums you may decide to dismantle, do some preliminary labeling, and try to keep them in some sort of order, probably chronological. Then you can get rid of most of the envelopes and boxes as well as the albums. Yet another anecdote: Right before the pandemic I helped a friend sort photos after her sister died. The sister had been a performer and a bit of a hoarder, so there were thousands of photos; but they were all packed in smallish boxes that conformed to their size, and filed chronologically, with lots of labeling. I was amazed at how little space they took up on her shelves, and how easy it was for people to find specific photographs or subjects (and, I assume, toss the rest).
Fourth, and this is the part where you have to think and feel most deeply: now that you have done the emotion-free busy work, take a moment to evaluate how much more you want to cull this herd of remaining photos, and start sorting in earnest.
My hope is that you will find many groups of images where one stands out, and the others offer nothing really new or different, at least to your jaded mother-of-grown-children eyes—especially if you decide not to discard these similar images but to send them along to your kids or other loved ones.
Remember: as with books, one great way to downsize collections of photos is to give them away to people you know. For example, consider giving your children not just any duplicate prints of their childhood photos, but also all but one of those “three or four or five” photos of the same “precious moments.” You could even throw in some photos from other collections—your wedding, your own baby pictures, a favorite cousin—or any photos you’re ambivalent about but hope one of these other people would like and/or has some stake in. (I gave my son about 98% of our rugby photos. Unlike me, he can tell them apart. He is glad to have them, and would not have wanted me to destroy them. ) Then send these new mini-collections off right away—preferably in decorative boxes, to underscore their status as thoughtful gifts. Your kids will probably be delighted.
Giving these photos away will free up some closet space without consigning any images to oblivion, and will give your children or any other recipients you designate a chance to see and own photos they may cherish, and can always dispose of or digitize themselves if they don’t. Sometimes kicking the can down the road actually makes sense.
With any luck, pruning those similar images, and your earlier no-brainer culling of dupes and duds, along with unremarkable sunsets, zoo animals, other people’s kids at bat, etc., will leave you with a collection you find manageable and accessible.And remember that you can digitize whatever you want to these days. If, even after removing negatives and packaging and duplicates and duds and similar images from your collection, it still seems too large, this might be a good time to approach your family photos in a new way, thinking not of the photos you still want to discard but the ones you love most. My suggestion, if you have the time or money, is to digitize everything you have left, then select only the prints you treasure – the ones you would like to hold in your hands or pass around a table, the ones you would save if there were a fire. You can discard the other prints; or, if this makes you feel squeamish, you can consign them to some more remote storage site than your closet or under the bed, given that you are unlikely to be looking at them again any time soon.
If you have a decent digital camera or one of the newest smartphones, you can do some or all of this digitizing yourself. Your collection, even as pared down, does sound like it might be a bit large for DIY digitizing, and there’s no point in creating yet another daunting obstacle for yourself. So I would opt for spending some money on pros. But phones, personal cameras, and home computer software are great for filling in gaps here and there. When I was in Florida I made myself a little cardboard platform and took iPhone pictures of photos I had relinquished to Lucy or my niece but did not want to lose, then sent them to my kids. The images looked fine, and I have every hope of adding them to the digital albums I plan to create at some point in the nebulous future.
You can also use the wonders of modern computing to preserve some of your favorite photos not just in digital albums, but also in printed books that can be much easier to to store and retrieve than the old clunky albums used to be.
Fifth, please don’t expect perfection. You end your letter by saying that you want to “finally complete” this “overwhelming task” so you can “move on.” I see that. But unless you want to emulate my cousin Harold, you are going to be doing a lot of balancing and making a whole lot of compromises. If you are like me – a fan of Whitman and Dickens who loves getting lost in times and places, and would choose potential and inclusion over order almost any day – you may not sort your photographs as quickly or as thoroughly as you would like, and you may be left with more photos and less organization than you’d hoped for. Or you may decide that nothing but drastic reductions will free your mind. Either way is okay, and you can and should still move on.
Best of luck! I hope you emerge from under the weight of your photos and your memories before too long. Onward and upward and, as my mother used to tell me: do as I say, not as I do.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.