Sunday, February 5, 2017

Preserving the Past: scanning old family photos (at what cost)


I've been preoccupied with the process of creating order out of orphaned papers since November, 2014, when we had to clean out my grandmother's house (which not only contained her memorabilia, her husband's memorabilia, but also that of her three daughters, as well).

And when I suddenly had to move all my stuff from my old cabin, which in danger of falling down, during the summer of 2015, I was left with mountains of my own paper, photos, etc., that had accumulated during a 35-year-career of being an artist and writer. The penny dropped. Get it together now. Don't leave all that crap behind for those who will survive you. Because it will all wind up in the county dump.

In 2015, I rescued and scanned thousands of family photos—after catching my uncle pitching my aunt Jane's France photos in the trash—Jane had lived with my grannie until her death in 1987, then moved down to Santa Cruz with my aunt Toddy ca. 2002, when she had breast cancer.

My aunt Canice, who lived in my grandmother's house too, until her death from colon cancer in 2012, also left mountains of memorabilia behind. And my mother's stuff from 1994, not to mention her ashes, was still in the house as well. None of the three sisters particularly got along, and each one of them was a hostile hoarder.

In the summer of 2015, I created an online photo archive. By 2016, I finished scanning most of the family photos. Except for the ones in Santa Cruz. Then my aunt Jane, who was living in Santa Cruz, with her sister, my aunt Toddy (Kathleen), died a month after her birthday.

I had made order out of most of Jane's old photos, scanned them, and had returned them all to her in Santa Cruz in June, on her birthday—when we found out that Jane's cancer had metastacised as melanoma and uterine cancer.

My cousin Katie saw me looking though a box of Jane's photos, accused me of stealing Jane's photos as I was returning the last batch.The irony is that most of them were photos that I salvaged from the basement trash cans. I was merely taking the final batch of photos north to be scanned, and Jane had given me permission.

But Katie, misread the situation, not knowing that Jane had given me permission to take more photos, thought I was stealing them. It just doesn't make sense, but Katie was under a lot of stress at the time. My explanations fell on deaf ears. And the "problem" escalated.

For some reason, all three of my Santa Cruz cousins completely lost their minds because I continued to scan family photos. Maybe they thought I'd stop if they got angry enough? I don't know. It's useless to speculate on irrational behavior. The next time I went down to see Toddy, in October,  all kinds of accusations of theft and epithets were hurled at me—for preserving family history.

I was devastated, in that I loved my cousins, and had devoted thousands of hours to the process of preserving our family history. As my cousin Barney verbally abused me, with his brother Myles joining in, I realized that I'd never set foot in that house again, that I'd never see their mother, my aunt Toddy, alive again. I hugged my aunt, made my final goodbyes, walked out their front door into the night, and waited for the death announcement to come.

Meanwhile during the summer of 2016, I began scanning my own photos—I had lots of travel photos. I still need to process them and put them online, which I do, from time to time, in random fits and starts. I still need to tackle the black and white photos of the 1980s and 1990s when I worked for The Paper, etc. Mostly photos of famous poets, etc. But for that I need a negative scanner. On the TO DO list. A massive task.

When my aunt Toddy died last month, we were able to go into the family archives and share the wealth of our family history. Toddy's daughter Katie and I made up at the memorial last weekend, but Barney and Myles are still heavily barricaded behind their irrational anger and misdirected hostility towards me for scanning (not stealing) family photos, so they kept their distance.

They needed a scapegoat. I was a convenient target. I doubt they'll ever get over it. Dickheads who were raised better than that. But I remind myself, searching for a small grain of compassion in my heart, by not fueling my own anger towards them, I reminded myself that they're survivors of a dysfunctional family.

Their older brother (mine too, as Toddy adopted Sean) was a drug addict, and a convicted felon for possession, who killed himself on October 16, 2007, rather than go back to prison (for assault), on the Third Strike program. And their father was a functional alcoholic for most of his life. In recollection, Toddy always had a can of beer in her hand, as did her husband.

Toddy, who was a two-times cancer survivor, later admitted that she had a problem with drinking too during the early years, but when she became a mother, all that changed. She held the family together as John spiraled out of control, losing jobs.

Toddy held the family together, against all odds, also raising Sean's children as her own, and once her faculties began to fail, her granddaughter/niece Tiffany took care of her, every single day for seven long years, as an unpaid laborer. No time off. No vacations. Once I was part of that family matrix, spending every Thanksgiving, Easter, and summers in Santa Cruz, going to the Feather River with Toddy and the gang. Halcyon days.

It all changed when I began to scan the family photos. To cope, everyone opted to live in a continuous fucked-up time present, where the relics of the past stayed firmly entrenched in the past, and the future was undefined. And here I was, disturbing carefully reconstructed timelines, uncovering the angry ghosts of the past.

With Toddy's death, my ties to that family are severed, except that Sean's children are also my blood nieces—not that anyone's ever acknowledged it. What I didn't know is that the family hatred and rage wasn't limited to just me, some of it was directed toward Tiffany, and it continues to stain the unblemished days of the future present.  I'm not big on prayer, if I were the praying kinds, I'd pray for them. All I can do is offer compassionate thoughts, and keep my distance. And hope that they begin to heal themselves.

Meanwhile, I've got some more scanning to tackle. That's what we do best. Carry on. Even in the face of adversity.


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