Fugit Note:
Other People’s Cullings
20 September 2019

¶ My gamble was, that getting through all of the boxes from North Carolina quickly, and doing it right, would weigh on me less in the long term. Time will tell if I was right; it’s all done. But I am not feeling very successful. Last night, Kathleen asked several time if I was just thinking about things, or in actual pain. For the most part, I was just thinking about things, but they were not the things that I’ve been working on for my essay on entertainment and the élite. In the late afternoon, I had gone through a box containing about thirty envelopes of developed film, most containing two dozen photographs. It was clear from this, and from the contents of the other box that arrived a week ago, that the accumulation had already been downsized by my late mother-in-law — I knew this anyway, because so many old family photographs had already been sent to us over the years — but there was still plenty to look at, judge, and discard. The box was almost as heavy when I went to toss it down the chute as it had been before I began culling. The thin sheaf of “saves” tucked neatly into the medium-sized pandan box that I’ve been using for the keepers.

And I felt as blue — melancholy at best — as you do whenever you go through a lot of old photographs of somebody’s younger days.  

The pictures fell into three categories. There were photos of gatherings and photos of travel, and photos of one or the other, taken by the other or one, of Kathleen’s parents. The gatherings were populated by elderly people whose faces were unfamiliar to Kathleen. And even if she had recognized them, whyever would we keep pictures of bygone get-togethers? We keep very few of our own as it is. So, out they went. (There was even a studio photograph of somebody’s pretty little six-year-old granddaughter, a woman now, by my calculation, nearly thirty.) 

The travel photos went, too, although for the opposite reason. We have other, better pictures (professionally taken, published in books) of the cities that Kathleen’s parents visited. And if you’ve seen one photograph of a nice resort, you’ve seen them all. So homogenized is the idea of comfort offered by these places that even the grand old spas, like the Greenbrier and the Broadmoor, begin to look like sleekly inflated motels. Especially painful were the repeated attempts to nail a good shot of an interesting-looking cactus or herbaceous border. I could tell that the plants must have been interesting, and perhaps even gorgeous, because I’ve tried for the same results myself, and failed just as consistently. The exceptions were genuinely interesting: my mother-in-law looking like a character actress in her prime, leaning against a fancy balustrade (at Mt Ada, I suppose), high above the boats and the casino in Avalon Bay; two shots of a mountain rising straight from the flattest of plains somewhere in New Mexico, beneath a participating sky. Those I saved, even though I expect that I’ll forget the “New Mexico” part pretty quickly. I also held on to any photographs of my in-laws that made me smile. 

(I forgot the fourth category: pictures of my mother-in-law’s rooms, which were intelligent but technically limited in the same way that mine are. Whenever I stepped away from the desk at which I was sorting the images, I felt uncertain of just where I was.) 

None of these pictures will mean anything whatsoever to anybody when Kathleen and I are gone. When we were little, older people passed on their few mementos with confidence that, at the very least, someone would find them quaint to look at. But that coinage has been devalued to worthlessness by the floods of prints that began to pile up in the Postwar boom. Nobody wants to giggle at crazy Aunt Lala anymore — what’s worse, she doesn’t look as crazy as she would have done, thirty years earlier. (Meds!)  

Why did the big boxes from North Carolina contain (among other things) smaller boxes of photographs? I’ll save that for another time. 

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