Sorting Pictures

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A few days ago I decided to take on one of my big to-do-tasks. It was time to sort photographs and other odds-and-ends of personal history, discard things I didn’t want, and organize the remainders so that I knew what I had. I wanted to be able to put my hands on something without having to sift through messy piles of uncatalogued ephemera. I started with photos of my travels. I quickly discovered that often there were three copies of the same picture, such as me on a camel at the Egyptian pyramids or me gazing at Peru’s Machu Pichu. I kept only one copy and also threw out blurry unrecognizable vistas. The “one copy” and “blurry” rules were easy to apply, but it became hard to toss pictures that evoked memories of exotic and fun journeys such as native markets in Mexico or Guatemala; ancient stone monuments in England and Scotland; or cathedrals in Italy and France.

Having started the daunting process of sorting, I decided I needed a cataloguing scheme such as: one-of-a-kind vintage family; my childhood with parents, siblings, and relatives; my young adult life including friends and life-shaping experiences; my kids and grandkids; and ultimately my mid to later life. I recognize it could take months to go through the photographs and I don’t know if this filing scheme will work. Also, what to do with all of the slides that were never put on photographic paper? Can I look at all of them using a little viewer without driving myself crazy?

In addition to endless photographs, there are other memorabilia for which I have to find some storage logic – my crepe paper American flag from a junior high school history project, family trees, my mother’s sewing box, the letters from my kids when they were at camp, and my father’s and uncle’s autobiographies.

Even if I do reduce the volume and succeed in getting everything organized there is no one but me who understands what they are about unless I write explanations. This could take endless time. Do I have the patience for it? And, more importantly if I do it, will anyone care? Right now my kids and grandkids have their own lives and wouldn’t have the time to learn what all of these bits and pieces represent. I will ask them, of course, but even if they say they don’t want them now, I think they will like to have the history if and when their lives become less busy.

So, I will save, document and figure out how to explain it all. If I don’t take on this assignment, then all of the knowledge and memories that fill my brain will end with me. I realize I can’t discard this heritage, but must preserve both the facts and the remembrances for my children and grandchildren. This puts a big responsibility on me to decide what I want them to know. First I want them to know their heritage and where they came from. This includes grandparents, great grandparents and relatives from previous generations – their personalities, life histories, connections to historical eras, and what made them who they were. Second, I want to share things about my own generation – family and friends. Third, I want them to know more details about me – schooling, activities, accomplishments, disappointments, decisions I made and why. Finally, I want to remind them of their own lives – from childhood and paths into adulthood. I want to imagine them nodding in understanding, and hopefully smiling when they see something that brings back their own growing up years.

I began sorting pictures with a naïve idea that I could just do it without thinking too much. I learned fast that is not possible. Sorting engenders memories and deep feelings, and the process reinforces the powerful desire to capture the past, and to pass that knowledge on to those who will bring it into the future.


  1. Carol Rose

    September 4, 2018

    Marian- You are an inspiration. But right now I think I’ll take a nap.
    Looking forward to your 80’s. (And let me know if you figure out how to lose weight).

  2. Carolyn Kruger

    September 4, 2018

    Super well stated and somewhat mirrors Harvard’s Health Newsletter article re downsizing.
    I still thank a first cousin a few years ago wo said no thank you when I offered her pictures of her mother at a young age. My cousin said she has her mother’s images in her brain and does not need the paper ones. This has given me permission to throw out many or give some to my daughters to decide if they wish to keep them or not, altho’ they have limited space to store such.

  3. Fran Korten

    September 4, 2018

    Hi Marian, This essay is so on target for where I am in my life right now. A year ago, I retired from my very demanding job as Executive Director of YES! Magazine. That, of course, has freed up a lot of time which I have managed to fill with many projects plus the relationships you mention as being so important. An ongoing project is sifting through the memorabilia of my life and that of my parents. I’ve started with the paper files. First, my parents’. I have 4 bankers boxes of their papers (now reduced to just 2). That has been so satisfying. I was never close to my mother — my father was such a dominant presence in our family. Now, since she was the one who wrote most of the letters, I feel incredibly close to her. I see how many relationships she had with her extended family that I had no idea about. I’ve also gone on to sort through my own papers. I just finished going through the memos I wrote during my 20 years with the Ford Foundation. That was SO satisfying. I could see the patterns of my work so clearly and how they had been formed and by whom. I’ve also gone through my years at Stanford and have decided to attend my class reunion (#55) — the first I have ever attended. I’ve reached out to friends I haven’t spoken with for 50 years — and we’ve reconnected as though no time had passed. Once I finish all the papers, I will move on to the 22 boxes of photos, and will then be in the thick of the dilemmas you describe. I do have a plan — don’t know if it will work. I’d like to create electronic books out of the photos — Shutterfly type books. One depicting the life of each child; one of Dave’s and my 3 years in Ethiopia; one of our time in Nicaragua, etc. I’m hoping that way of thinking will help me figure out what to keep and what to toss. And those books make it so easy for someone else (a child, a grandchild, a sister, a cousin) to browse through and enjoy. One lesson I take from this that is you don’t know when a child might want to go through your things. Here I am at 77 going through my parents papers (and photo albums too). They have been deceased for over 25 years, yet here I am getting acquainted with them anew. Have fun with your sorting, Marian. To me, that’s the key. Only do it when it’s fun.

  4. Sonya Oppenheimer

    October 1, 2018

    AH, wise Marion, you have touched again upon a tender to-do topic which has led me to conclude that our emancipated, grown up kids don’t really mean what they say.
    When I moved my mother from her apartment to her senior living one, I found photos heaped in a large grocery bag with absolutely no captions. A few I gave to people I thought would want them; some I recognized and tagged; most I felt I wanted to review with her. So I returned to the bag and storage in my closet where they languished for years.
    Then it was time for me to rapidly move out of my house, drastically downsizing, so I told the kids to cull what they wanted. Nothing! Not being in good physical shape, most of the packing was left to them with me just tagging the have to have items. Now that am unpacking. I’m finding lots of photos they are sure I still need to keep for them!

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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