Before modern technology, I did a good job maintaining family photo albums. Each of our three kids has a baby book that chronicles that first year, and I had spent many a Jan. 1 putting together an annual album.
But I dropped the ball.
I had a strong start. When I was pregnant with our first child, I created a special album for her with printed pages and space to glue photos. I slid each page into a vinyl sleeve and organized them in a beautiful (read: expensive) fabric covered-photo album. The album would tell her whole story: from our wedding through her first moments, milestones and special visitors. I uncharacteristically overachieved and added more pages for subsequent years:
“Age 2, Weight ____, Height____, Favorite things____” through age 18.
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My motivation was the lack of photos from my own early years. Those had been taken by my hobbyist-photographer father, but they were slides that somehow disappeared in one of my parents’ many moves.
My mother did lovingly create photo albums for each of her three grown kids several years ago. I cried when I got mine and snuggled on the couch with my own kids. For the first time they saw pre-me photos of family and my life through college. The album is light on early childhood photos, but there are studio portraits, some snapshots from an Instamatic, a few really faded Polaroids and a scattering of school pictures.
But I didn’t have the book Mom made when I started my own children’s baby books, I only had a hole in my heart where my childhood photo memories should have been, and a lifelong ability to overdramatize everything.
I really was obsessed with the mission: My child must have a fully photographed first year. Over that year we religiously snapped photos, had them developed, selected the best ones and put them in her book while she napped. I dreamed of putting the album on my lap and showing her (and her friends and her future husband) her babyhood.
A month after her first birthday I became pregnant with her little brother and started his baby book. Sure, I down-scaled to a “pleather” album for him, but it included all the same elements…except, by the time he was born, I accepted that I had only been filling up a vinyl sleeve with untethered photos to put in place…. someday. I did the same for him and his baby book mission was completed by his 18-month birthday.
Six years after kid No. 2’s baby book was full our final child was born. I had learned a lot by then, like, the best I could hope for was to buy a premade album and to try my best to get his baby photos in it.
And I did by his second birthday.
Then the world went digital.
Since then I’ve made some photo albums online, the slick ones that require me to drag and drop an image into a preset template and wait for a pre-printed album to arrive at my house. But, mostly, our modern equivalent of flipping through old family albums is scrolling through one of several online photo depositories. Hardly a warm and fuzzy, curled-up with a loved one moment, right?
Wrong. My kids grew up with screens. Sure, they have their baby books, those annual albums and professional portraits, but their over-documented, day-to-day photo-memories are online. They are on Instagram or Facebook; they are shared in Snapchats and texts.
They sit with their friends and scroll through their phone camera rolls looking for the snapshots of their lives; they curl up with me on the couch while we do the same.
The method may be different, but the emotion of looking back? Some things don’t change.
Susan Vollenweider is a Kansas City based writer and podcaster. To listen to the history-related podcasts that she co-hosts or to read more of her work visit www.thehistorychicks.com or www.susanvollenweider.com.