Picture These Memories

“Go pack a bag of everything that’s important to you,” Mom said.

I was about eight or nine years old and it was the beginning of one of my most vivid childhood memories. I knew that my parents had been watching the news and listening to the radio for days. It was the dog days of summer and there was a wildfire raging nearby.

I loved the wilds of my childhood: tromping through the forest on my way to swim in a lake during the summer, stacking wood for winter, shoveling snow and making snowmen. In between all that were the days that we spent raking the underbrush and burning yard debris, making sure that the area around our home had a large clearance away from the treeline.

That day, none of our efforts may have mattered, though. My parents and older brother were all busy packing their own items. As an adult, I have a fireproof box of all my important documents. I’m not sure what I would do about the large items that I’ve deemed important on my various moves: the hope chest I received from my late grandfather’s side of the family or the small dresser that a long-gone ancestor used when they were on the captain of a ship.

That day, though, I grabbed things that are important to a child: my favorite stuffed animal, some clothes, and my journal.

“Time to go!” My dad yelled.

We drove away in two cars.

“Where are we going?” I asked my dad.

“To a hotel,” he said.

The nearest town was about twenty or thirty minutes away. We quickly found out that the hotel was full. Same with the other few in the neighboring towns. Everyone else we knew had also evacuated, so there was no one we could stay with for a few days. They were setting up a temporary shelter at the fairgrounds, but my parents didn’t want to stay there.

I’m not sure how the decision had been made, but we ended up at my mom’s work. She was a preschool teacher and the center was closed as it was summer break. Our neighbors and family friends were also there and after a call to my mom’s work, it was decided that our two families would say there.

I was thrilled! There was a kitchen, a bathroom and a playground. The four of us kids walked a few blocks to VHS video store and each got to pick out a movie to watch and arrived back at the center to find that our parents had made makeshift beds for us in the open classroom and had gotten snacks ready.

The whole time felt like a grand vacation to me. I got to spend time with my best friend, we slept somewhere fun and exciting, and we got to watch movies. All the trepidation I’d felt leaving my home had disappeared.

We returned to our house briefly to gather some more things. It was earie and quiet in our neighborhood, and we were told that it wasn’t advisable that we stay for long.

In the end, our house was spared, as were those of our friends and neighbors. The fire was devestating-as they always are-but it didn’t have a longlasting effect on me overall.

A couple of years ago, the news of forest fires began nagging at me and one of the people interviewed said she was devestated that she’d lost her family photos.

That comment stuck with me, as I had boxes and boxes of photos- those from my life and all of the family pictures my parents gave to me. They made every move and were one of the things that took up special real estate in the eight by eight storage unit we rented when we moved abroad.

I began to worry about losing my photographs. I could grab the small fireproof box that held papers that would make recreating life easy- my birth certificate, marriage license, and house documents. I paused when I realized that all those things were replaceable. Maybe not without a giant headache, but I could get another copy.

Physical pictures, once lost, are gone forever. So, I began researching and came up with the idea of scanning all of the photographs. I found a photo scanner, figured out long-term digital storage, and spent entire weekends during the cold winter months scanning photos.

The pictures were all old, dating back to the days before digital cameras. I agonized over which version to keep of the same picture (remember when people would take several pictures, just to make sure they captured something correctly, as they wouldn’t know what they captured until after the film was developed). There were numerous pictures of trees and other scenery which was pretty, but didn’t hold any special memories. I had to ask my parents who some of the people in the photographs were, which often led to funny stories about the people or event. We even reached out to family we had lost touch with, the pictures shared over email and bridging the span of time.

When I neared the end of my scanning project, I decided that everyone got so much joy out of the pictures that I created a USB drive and distributed them among family members. Each had separate folders, such as “family camping trips” and I tried to label each photo with some piece of information.

I know now that there are several copies of the photos, including my own that are on a USB stick, stored in that fireproof box along with a handful of my favorite hard copies. I still have some boxes of photos as I like the experience of looking at them in that format, but I now know that a fire won’t wipe out all my pictures.

Having the digital backups is comforting, knowing that I can grab-and-go. I also love the feeling of mobility that it provides- I know nothing can take way the actual memories, but it’s nice to know I can bring them with me wherever I move, which is also priceless.

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