Kerrying On

Space: The Final Frontier

Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, I’ve decided to work on something I’ve been avoiding for years—old photos. I’m going to sift through dozens of shoe boxes, envelopes, and albums, and not only organize the photos contained therein, but also scan the pictures as a means of transforming them into digital files.

Here’s why. Once you scan photos, you can send their electronic essence (along with the digital photos you’ve taken since around 2002) to the cloud. Then your kids and grandkids can look at everything from your great grandfather’s baby picture taken in 1880, to something you shot on your smart phone yesterday. Plus, you can crop, clean, lighten, darken, and otherwise edit photos once you’ve reduced them to digital records.

I figure that the long and tedious job of digitizing photos falls on me because the world upgraded to digital platforms fifteen years ago and most people (including my kids and grandkids) won’t give a second’s thought to the once-cherished family snapshots that are currently stuffed away in corners, boxes, and drawers. Worse still, younger folks aren’t exactly losing sleep over what’s going to happen to vintage family photos as they age out of memory and fade out of sight. Plus, old fogies such as myself may be the last people around who know anything about the stories behind each photo—which is what makes them so interesting in the first place.

For instance, I was poring through a box of black-and-white pictures my great-grandparents passed along and, to my surprise, written on the back of one of them was the following note: “This little darling is your cousin Elizabeth. The vase on the table next to her is Tiffany (New York). I’m surprised that Elizabeth’s mother Mary hasn’t broken it yet. She breaks more dishes than a green maid.”

I stumbled on this treasure when my mother was still alive and she could tell me about the photo and the story behind it. The person who wrote the note was my great-grandmother Lilly Davis. She was raised in a wealthy home where she had been trained in everything from oil painting to opera. In fact, her voice was so beautiful, she auditioned for the New York Opera in the late 1890s and was scheduled to start performing in the fall. That is, until she bumped into a young man (in her front yard no less) who instantly captured her heart. “It was love at first sight,” my mother explained. “They knew they had found their life companion the moment they locked eyes.”

Their sudden love also initiated a disaster. Lilly wouldn’t be preparing for the opera that summer—not with her parent’s support, at least—because Lilly had fallen in love with the gardener. The poor fellow knew nothing of Tiffany vases, green maids, and opera. And then Lilly’s mother did exactly what you’d expect from a person raised on old money, she forbade her daughter from seeing the common laborer. When the young couple disobeyed her, she banished the two from the family.

In response, the two snuck away, were married by the justice of the peace, and headed west for a better life. Wagons, surreys, shoe leather, and trains (no cars or highways back then), took the newlyweds to coastal Oregon where they settled down and raised four boys and four girls—including my grandmother Priscilla.

As the Booths were raising their family in Oregon, half way across the country in Dyersville, Iowa, Billy Noonan, the curious son of Irish immigrants, was being raised by his fraternal aunt and uncle (his parents had passed). The two unlikely parents possessed such harsh temperaments that they routinely beat Billy for the smallest of infractions. At age 12, tiring of the sting of the whip, Billy packed a bag and walked across the entire state of Iowa to find his late mother’s sister and family. Billy found love and support in western Iowa and remained dear friends with his cousin Mae for the next 80 years—all of which was captured in notes written on the back of old photos.

After graduating from high school, traveling the country, and working in everything from trapping to riverboat gambling, Billy (now Bill) landed in a coastal Oregon town where he found work as a lumber inspector. On the first evening, Bill sat down for a meal at his new boarding house, Priscilla, the attractive young woman serving the food, stole his heart. A man who had once hiked, hitched, and huffed his way across the country, and a woman whose parents had made a similarly arduous journey, met over a bowl of beef stew in a tiny berg located miles from everywhere. The pair fell in love, married, and eventually had a baby girl they named Melba—my mother.

As you might imagine, I would love for my offspring to pore over our old family photos and the digital records I’m now creating, and learn about the people who supplied their DNA. But who’s going to scrounge through boxes and envelopes, or search through computer files, and discuss the people and events found in the images? You can’t lecture, guilt, or otherwise inspire your kids into doing such a thing—not with live friends vying for their attention on their smart phones.

Fortunately, where wielding guilt may come up short, there is one source of influence that just might plunge young people into their fascinating histories: space. Use it correctly and Billy, Priscilla, and their folks won’t be forgotten. There’s an entire literature devoted to using space to one’s advantage. Propinquity Theory, as the field is known, offers up such tidbits as: if you want to avoid eating candy, move the bowl farther away; or, if you want to marry a science major, eat lunch in the engineering building. You get the idea. It’s the science of bump-into.

So, here’s how I plan to use propinquity to my advantage. I’m creating a special space—a legacy corner near our piano made up of a dozen framed heritage photos that I’ll rotate every few months. When the grandkids come to visit, we’ll gather around the newly rotated photos and discuss the people and their stories. Here’s what the conversation might sound like: “Do you see the fellow in the dark suit? He’s the gardener who married Priscilla. His name was Frank Lincoln Booth. Does that name raise any questions in your mind?” (It turns out that Frank, the lovesick gardener, was born three months after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. Frank was given the middle name Lincoln, to clarify his allegiances. Fascinating, right?)

So, for the next few weeks, I’ll continue to scan our family photos—taking care to capture the stories behind each (you can record the stories in the “comments” section of the JPEG file—keeping photo and story forever linked). If I manage my space wisely, by bringing photo histories into the center of our living quarters where my children and their children will constantly bump into them, my offspring will be blessed with a host of fascinating stories about the people who made their lives possible.

Oh, yes, and should you drop by my home one day and spot a photo of a fourteen-year-old boy standing in the middle of a scorched bedroom, holding on to a spent container of rocket fuel looking guilty, that would be a snapshot of me.

But that’s another story for another day.

Headshot

Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

18 thoughts on “Space: The Final Frontier”

  1. Please, DO label everything! My Mom died in December and I am going through family photos. Luckily, I have a surviving cousin who has been able to ID many people, but more are lost to the mists of time. If your family was an early settler of a place, offer the photos to the local historical society.

    I really like your rotating pics idea!

    1. I’m doing my best to provide labels and stories. The good news is that other relatives can add so much. Much more than I thought.

  2. Thank you Kerry! Always enjoy hearing from you. You always capture such wonderful, beautifully human memories. Thank you for continuing to share with us.

  3. Really well written and interesting story about your family, Kerry. Luckily you know quite a bit, and have documented the story. Be sure to include it w your photos for generations five fold down the line. I would give much to know my families stories after settling in America, but all before me are gone….XO

  4. Very interesting. I’m a family historian (genealogist) who has spent some time in recent years digitizing my photos as well, but who recently realized two things: 1) in retirement, I will be living out of a suitcase and won’t have room to take family photo albums, and 2) my relatives are interested in this stuff, but really would like the information in a format that they can keep and that is more easily digestible. So I’m looking into creating e-scrapbook pages with the photos and the stories (and my family tree info) on the pages. I’ll be able to save them as PDFs, so the stories stay with the photos long after I’m gone, and people who want the information can keep it or print it. And I can even create small booklets with coherent stories for my families. My family (both the immediate family and the distant ones) tell me that they agree this stuff is important, but for many reasons it hasn’t been accessible to very many family members. I’m determined to do what I can to change that.

  5. I LOVE this all – the well-told story of your family, your idea to share family history with your grandkids by telling them the stories through pictures, and your action plan and tips for making the idea happen. Thank you so much for sharing with us. I too have a goal to share family history with my daughter and nephews and you have given me actionable steps to get to work on it. Much appreciated!

  6. I love, love, love this article – and will incorporate some of your suggestions…. thanks for this and all your articles

  7. I have this on my to do list. I started about six months ago, got distracted by life and the project fell by the wayside. One thing I did discover was old envelope of negatives from my husbands side of the family. They had not been taken care of and were so faded that they appeared almost blank. I went ahead and scanned just in case and wonderful images appeared of his Mom and Dad’s wedding. We shared on Facebook and no one from any generation had remembered seeing them before. So if you run across negatives that seemed too damaged take a chance and scan anyway. You never know what treasures may appear.

  8. Oh so awesome! You should turn this project into a book for America to read! Sounds fascinating indeed! Of course, your story telling abilities add to the glorious wonders!

  9. Kerry, what town in Western Iowa did young Billy walk to? That’s my neighborhood!! I am curious. Pam Dykstra (maybe I’ll have to contact you directly)

  10. Nice ideas for keeping history alive. Ever thought about Q & A? Like “Who is the lady in the blue dress? Gran Dot, gran Marv or gran Mary?” Add a positive reward – 10 correct answers gets you a piece of grans chocolate cake! I’m sure that you have a “book full” of personal motivational ideas that have been used over the years to motivate employees
    Keep it coming

  11. I always love Mr. Patterson’s stories and this one really resonated with me as I’ve been working on the same project. Unfortunately, only a fraction of photos had labels- and I have trunks and suitcases full of them!. As much as I’ve enjoyed the sleuthing trying to determine who’s who (I am a problem solver after all), Sharon is correct- label everything! Please! I love the idea of adding stories to the jpeg file, thanks for the tip!

  12. I’ve been digitizing old photos for a couple of years and can recommend DigMyPics, if you’re willing to let someone else do them. They do good work, and my photos never leave the US. Plus they can archive the originals for you. As you noted, digital is made for sharing. Some of my family use Nixplay frames to share, and I love waking up to new pictures from my stepmom! Good luck.

    1. I’ve hired a local shop to digitize nearly 2,000 slides. That eliminated a tremendous amount of work.

  13. You might look into places like Ancestry.com; this generation may not be interested but future generations will possibly thank you! I know I have inherited three different sets of pictures from three different branches of the family and one from a very good friend who left no descendants, I can only identify a small minority of the people and places; it hurts to have lost all that family history! I plan on entering those I know into ancestry.com once I’m retired or get the family home emptied whichever comes first!

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