Wednesday, December 01, 2010


LIVING IN THE 80’S: My Adventures in Preserving Old Family Mementos

By Cindy

Nothing like spending 2010 reliving the last 30 years.

It all started earlier in the year when my daughter-in-law, searching for something else, noticed a box of old cassette tapes in our closet. “Oh! Let’s listen to these!” she said, pulling them out and looking for a tape player.

“Nooo!” I quickly replied. “I have to go through them!” It was something I’d been meaning to do for years—listen to the old audio tapes I’d recorded of the kids—made mostly before we got a video camera in the mid 1980’s. In the days before digital cameras and instant videos, I had recorded these cassettes to capture the boys’ first words, cries, birthday party banter, family dinner times, story times and endless playtimes. Besides my journals, it was all we had back then—a virtual “slice of life” one could not get just by reading the written word.

All this time I knew the cassettes were still tucked away in the closet, but the boys grew up, life went on, and I had temporarily put them at the back of my mind. I couldn’t remember exactly what was on them, but I wanted to make sure they contained nothing personal or embarrassing before being made available for general listening. When we taped them all those years ago, I thought nobody else would ever listen to them. I couldn’t even imagine the kids growing up, much less one of their wives discovering those recordings. But that day had come, and I had to deal with it. So, after wrestling the box away from my daughter-in-law, a few days later I began listening away. Week after week, hour after hour, tape after tape I played. They begin in 1981 with our first baby’s cries, all the way through his first words and onto adventures, skits, chatter and sometimes squabbles with his little brother and Mommy and Daddy into the 90’s. There are also some phone conversations with friends and family, where I’m talking about the kids, setting up babysitting swaps and playtimes with my friends’ children, and lots of other young mother talk I’d long forgotten. Some segments are only a few minutes, others more than an hour. And sure enough, I did come across a few tapes where the boys are yakking and playing away but you can still hear Mom and Dad discussing slightly personal matters in the background, or the odd times when Mom and/or Dad sound perhaps a bit too “frazzled”—nothing major but things I did not necessarily want immortalized for all eternity. So they were edited out or simply summarized.

I transcribed as best I could most of the conversations and chatter, to have a complete record of what was on each tape. It was very time-consuming, because unlike video tapes, you can’t just fast-forward and write down a general description of the event. You have to LISTEN to every bit, or you might miss the cutest thing your child ever said. And if you miss something while transcribing, you have to stop, rewind and listen again until you get caught up on the keyboard. Although it was fun and brought back a lot of memories, there were times I felt I’d NEVER get done. But after working off and on for several months, finally I finished. I also printed up an index, assigning a title for each segment and listing them in chronological order with a brief description. The actual transcripts are too lengthy so most of them will remain in a digital word document rather than print. In many ways the transcripts are funnier than listening to the tapes! We have laughed so hard reading some of them that tears were streaming down our faces.


And then I started on the photos. Oh the photos. That was yet another project I wanted to do, as did my older son, the family historian. While he searched away on the Internet to unravel complex genealogical histories (“I don’t have time to deal with the pictures—YOU do it!”), I began pulling out all those hundreds of photos, scanning month-by-month, year-by year, all the way through the mid-90’s. I have temporarily stopped, but there are still more to go. Fortunately we went mainly digital beginning in the late 90’s, so the pile does get smaller, but still, there were tons of pictures to scan, crop, rotate and label. Many were unidentified and I had to do investigative work with my old diaries to determine dates and places. Thankfully I had already scanned my childhood and youth photos several years ago so that didn’t need to be done. I had also scanned and photographed all my youth mementos—toys and dolls, knick-knacks, jewelry, piano books I wrote in, pictures and drawings, etc. Again, these are things that cannot be replaced, so it is nice to have at least a photographic record of them in case they were ever lost or destroyed.

Like the audio tapes, the pictures from the 80’s and early 90’s were another trip down memory lane. In many ways, that time period seems more real to me than today. I guess it has to do with the “heyday” thing, being younger myself and so busy raising my family. And in the 80’s I was so young and svelte. I was in my mid 20’s and early 30’s, but, as my daughter-in-law remarked, I didn’t even look like the mother but more like the “teenage babysitter”. And then we get into the 90’s where the photos become almost painful to look at as I turn lumpy and dumpy and the boys enter their awkward stage (which they have yet to outgrow, haha).


All of this transcribing and scanning came not long after the arduous project of typing all my hand-written diaries—something that literally took years to accomplish. I’d started keeping them when our first son was born, and wrote almost every day, religiously documenting the boys’ antics and our family activities. I had felt compelled to chronicle those tomes in digital form when one day I looked at my massive pile of journals, planners, calendars and notebooks, and realized that they really were my most prized possession, something that could not be replaced if there were a fire or other catastrophe. They’re all terribly boring to anyone else but interesting, entertaining memories to me (“Baby had diarrhea and spit up a lot today…went to store, dropped son off at Scouts…took cookies to son’s class for Halloween party…junior said the funniest thing today…toddler was crabby, got into a lot of trouble…watched The Flintstones and then took a walk…planning to serve chicken tonight…”). Now they are all digitized with most of the bulky originals discarded, and a backup copy in the safe-deposit box. Again, it is another way to have peace of mind, and it was also handy when I came across mystery pictures while scanning and wanted to find a date or place or identify people in the photos. All I had to do was a quick word search on the computer and usually I found what I was looking for. Much easier than weeding through pages and pages of hand-written journals!

I began keeping a digital journal in mid-2008, when I realized the longer I kept writing longhand in my cutesy girly diaries, the more I’d have to type down the road. It was hard to break the habit but I’m used to it now. And I can write even more detailed accounts of each day, because typing is faster and there is no space limitation. I can tell all about what I did, what I ate, if I worked out, what I watched and read, where I went, what I bought, who I talked to, what they said, every cute little thing my granddaughter did, every cute little thing the cats did, and so on. 2010 alone is over 100 pages, typed single space—enough to put anyone to sleep.

Years before that, in the 90’s while I was still young enough to remember things, I wrote my life story. Again, this would be incredibly boring drivel to anyone else, but necessary for me to get in touch with my “inner child.” That alone is several hundred pages, typed single space and in digital form. I also wrote tons and tons of miscellaneous memories and “deep thoughts”, everything I could recall from my youth, college years, wedding and first year of marriage—about my family, friends, neighbors, holidays, vacations, teachers, school experiences, pets, favorite toys, books and television shows, you name it. That is another several hundred pages, neatly arranged year by year, and brought me up to 1981 when I started keeping a daily written record. Actually, I used to keep a daily diary in junior high, filling up several of them, but I destroyed them all when I was in high school and caught my little brother and his friend reading them. At that time, I thought I didn’t need or want them anymore. I sure do regret doing that—what treasures they would be to me now! I wish my mother had kept a written record of my early years, but all I have are pictures and a few home movies that stopped when I reached age nine. I did find my baby book in the house after she died. It contained one photo from when I was two, and nothing else. One would barely know I existed from that! There was absolutely nothing for my brother. Both of our sons’ baby books are meticulously filled out and have been scanned as well.

Along with the diaries, tapes and pictures, there are the family videos. We had acquired over a hundred of these things, all taken with our big, clunky video camera that we paid big bucks for—over a thousand dollars in 1986! It was high technology at the time, but we figured it was worth it since the kids were young and we wanted to capture all those family memories. Now you can buy a small, lightweight high-definition video camera for under $100. Oh if only we’d had one of those when raising the boys! All the videos would be digital already and take up a lot less space. Instead, a few years ago my husband spent months transferring all those long video tapes to DVD. They still aren’t in digital format, but at least they fit neatly into a binder, rather than taking up tons of room in boxes or cabinets. Years ago I had meticulously composed an index to all our videotapes—fast-forwarding through hours and hours of birthday parties, opening Christmas presents, school plays, Scouting events, playtimes, silly skits, etc. That index is printed up in chronological order with brief descriptions of each event. And, as with the photos, we were all young and cute in the 80’s, and dumpy and awkward in the 90’s.

Also a few years ago I typed up all our Christmas newsletters into word documents (we have been sending them out since 1982) and digitized a scrapbook I had made of family vacations with pictures, itineraries, summaries and keepsakes of each journey. It begins with our first official long-distance trip in 1988 to visit relatives and view a few sites in Iowa, and continues on through our other excursions to places like Disney World, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, various day trips to the zoo and Chicago, and finally our last big family vacation to Colorado in 1997 where we could still force our older son to accompany us since he hadn’t yet graduated high school. By this time neither son wanted to go at all. While viewing this scrapbook, it is amusing and somewhat disconcerting to see the transformation in the boys from smiling kids happy to be with Mommy and Daddy, to surly teens glaring at the camera with a “I want to be anywhere but here” look. Oh I miss those days when they were young.

In addition, I had written several family history books in the early to mid 90’s, where I interviewed relatives—sometimes traveling long distances to do so—and composed their life stories and memories they had of various ancestors. All of this is now in digital form, pictures included. My son continues to expand on these works, using the Internet which I did not have during these early efforts to trace the family tree. Oh how much easier it would have been!


Speaking of technological advances, while going through all of our memorabilia I was reminded of how far we have come, like when I found some photocopies of Polaroids of the kids. For you youngsters out there, Polaroids are like “instant pictures”, where you could push the button and out popped a photo. At first it was dark and didn’t show an image, but if you waited a few minutes, there was the picture! It was magical! You didn’t even have to take it to the drug store to be developed! (“Developing” is when you give your film—a sort of dark, transparent roll that comes out of cameras— to the nice man at the drug store, who takes it into a special room with some chemicals, turns it into pictures on photo paper, and then gives them back to you for a price.) I remember when the kids were young, there were times I wanted to send a Polaroid or two to some friends I corresponded with. But I still wanted a keepsake of the actual pictures. So I would give these Polaroids to my husband who then took them to work and made a photocopy and brought them back to me, and I’d mail out the original (in an envelope with a stamp) and keep the photocopy. Of course now one would be able to email all the pictures they wanted, or just post them right up on Facebook! But we could not even conceive of such an idea back then. And now I have lost touch with those people I sent the original photos to or they have long since thrown them away, so I’ll never even get them back and all I have is a blurry photocopy.

I was also reminded of our snazzy new “electronic typewriter” we bought in 1988. A Sears SR3000 model. Woo-wee!! We were so proud of it, we even took a picture! Why, it even had a “correcting key”, where you backspaced and it magically typed over your mistake with a white ribbon! Then you didn’t have to use “Liquid Paper”, that little bottle of white stuff you painted over your flub-ups. That reminded me of how I used to type the church newsletter on our old portable manual typewriter—the only thing we had. People would give me articles or if there was enough time they’d mail them to me (in an envelope with a stamp). I typed them up, bundled up the kids, drove to the printers in the next town, unbuckled the oldest from the car, unbuckled the baby from his car seat, put money in the meter and ran into the printers for the two seconds it took me to slap the manuscript down on the counter (I couldn’t just leave my kids alone in the car or leave the car unattended with no money in the meter). Then I ran back out to the car, buckled the kids in, drove home and waited for the printer to call, picked up the newsletter while going through the whole buckling and unbuckling and parking meter routine, drove back home, sorted and collated all the pages, and handed them out at church first thing Sunday morning. What a job! If I was still in charge of the newsletter today, people could just email me their articles and I could copy and paste them onto some newsletter-like template and post it on the church’s website, never once having to drive anywhere or even open a bottle of Liquid Paper.


But back to the tedious scanning, typing, transcribing and indexing. Did I have to do all this work? No. I could have left a mish-mash of photos in boxes, along with my journals and tapes, the world would still turn and my offspring could sort it out when I die. But did I want to do it? Yes and no. It brought back a lot of good memories, as well as some bad. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind. And it’s definitely easier to find things, as well as more convenient and enjoyable to view the pictures and home movies—photographs, especially, “come to life” on a large, bright monitor and you can zoom in on whatever you want to see. It will also help preserve all these mementos for generations to come. But then it was also a LOT of work and in many ways I feel like I missed out on living for today. I think of all the sewing I could have done and other projects I wanted to accomplish. Sometimes I felt like I was living in a time-warp. I remember one day my older son walked through the door and I pretended to be in a trance, mumbling something about how I’d pour his juice as soon as I changed his brother’s diaper. “Oh wait—you’re almost 30,” I then said, snapping out of it. He laughed.

Also, I read the news and it is so depressing sometimes; what if we get nuked or global warming catches up with us and we died off as a planet? What would it matter if all our family pictures and my diaries were scanned and typed? But, I still felt compelled and I’m glad I did it. It is neat to have almost everything fit on a little thumb drive or flash drive I can carry with me, with backups in the safe deposit box. At this point we do not have most of the videos and audio tapes in digital form, but that’s a future project. At least I have written indexes and transcripts, and I do have a few screen caps of some of the best videos.

But it is pretty cool to have my life on a thumb drive. I could tell you exactly what I did on September 14, 1997, or show you what I looked like at my third birthday party and on my 30th. It also might prove invaluable if I ever found myself in the midst of a murder investigation. The prosecutor demands to know where I was on the night of October 12, 1989? No problem—just pull out the thumb drive, pop it into a computer and start reading a long, detailed journal entry from that very date, possibly accompanied by photos, a transcript of a tape, and video screen caps. “I’m innocent, I tell you! Innocent! And this proves it!” However, I’d be guilty of boring the jury to death! But for me it would be fun, invaluable memories, and that’s all that matters.