In Case of Fire
In the wake of Emme’s departure for college, I found myself using words like bereft and despair. My heart felt as though it might break each time I saw a picture of my kids when they were small, even though the day-to-day of living with teenagers is its own special brand of heartache (and irritation, annoyance, frustration, confusion… it’s like constantly being swindled out of $5 by a skilled shell game con man). Anyway, in the midst of this, I happened to come in contact with a photo archivist.
Alicia is actually the mother of a girl in Serena’s grade but I don’t think we’d ever met before. Just as well, because she is incredibly lovely and generous and kind, and I don’t think I would have let her out of my sight for the past several years had I known her. Anyway, I was curious about her email signature: “visual storyteller,” “photo archivist.” I reached out, intrigued. We set up a meeting. She explained how she would take the boxes of photos I have — all organized neatly but many still in their original photo sleeves from the camera shop where I used to get them developed (remember that?) or in photo albums — and scan each one, then upload them to “the cloud” and back up to a single external hard drive. She’d even take my other external back-up hard drives (from computers long gone) and add them to the file. It would all be saved forever, in one simple, easy-to-access place online, in the air, wherever all the data of our lives is truly stored.
"And God forbid, in case of fire, your precious photos will be safe,” she said.
It seemed a bit like a silly expense, especially with one kid in college and another two close on her heels, with the holidays approaching, with my own sense of not knowing what/where/how to go on right at this moment. But the words in my heart — bereft, despair — showed up again and I found myself handing her six neatly organized boxes and a stack of photo albums along with two old hard drives.
“Good luck,” I said, but what I really meant was thank you: Thank you for taking these bittersweet reminders away from me and offering me some space from them while I learn how to heal and to live in this new “normal” without babies and small girls. As she drove away, I felt lighter, like I could breathe without the ghosts of those tiny kids hiding in my closet and garage.
And then, weeks later, the fires.
Everyone always says, when you’re told to evacuate, you must take your photos and pets. “Anything irreplaceable,” they say. But when you’re told to evacuate, and can see the glow of flames behind your house and the winds are strong and blowing embers toward your 4-story pine trees, you kind of panic. All I wanted was to lock eyes on my loved ones and get the heck out, house and ephemera be damned.
To be honest, we evacuated so early that I thought I was just being a bit hysterical. Daughter of a fire chief, I knew that the best thing to do was to get out of the way of the firefighters. For every “hero” who stayed to hose down houses, I’m told there were at least a dozen other 911 calls to rescue someone who refused to leave or stayed too long and got trapped when their garden hose failed to stave off the thousand-degree fire. We live on a hill with a small road leading up to us and I’m no dummy; there was no way I’d expect a fire truck to get up to our place.
Still, because I didn’t truly think the fires would decimate our area, I left some things behind: the baby “books” (now boxes) of mementos for each of the girls, my wedding album and negatives, all my journals and writing from the past four decades. I was about to leave when I got a text from Alicia: I have your photos and hard drives. They are in my car and ready to go when we evacuate.
And in that moment, I got it: she had some of the best parts of our life in her possession, right there. When I fast-forwarded in my mind, these were the things our kids - and their kids, and hopefully their kids’ kids - would treasure more than the furniture and accessories and books in our home. More than our house, even. Of course we could live without them, but we wouldn’t have to. And in the harrowing days that followed, in which we didn’t know if our house or our business were burning or somehow spared, that was a big comfort. I had only one change of clothes, but I would always have memories of our life as a family.
Today it’s raining. Really pouring, buckets of rain pelting the trees and scorched earth, watering my dehydrated plants and mocking our fears of fire. And my photos are back from Alicia, who came over yesterday with my new 1 terabyte hard drive that holds every image with room to spare. She showed me how to access every photo online, each one tagged with data so that we can search for people, dates, occasions. There’s even a space to write a caption or story for various photos… and although I didn’t think it was important, I found myself telling Alicia about each shot - “oh, that’s the day Emme got her braces off” or “this is when Serena was teaching Marlowe how to fly a kite” or “that was the Christmas when the kids got bikes and we took them out into the street to ride them.”
Marlowe and I went through the website for hours last night. This frivolous service, this thing I didn’t think I needed, this extra expense… I can’t tell you how beautiful it was to see everything all in one place, neatly organized and saved forever, not just for me but for the girls and their families.
And it was good for my soul, too. I could see, in glorious color and b/w, where all my time had been spent over the past 20 years. The small moments around the dinner table, the goofy kids in the bathtub, the dressed up holiday gatherings, the hours and hours we spent just hanging out in the den, with its dirty carpet and scattered toys. This was my life.
Is my life.
There is no longer a doubt in my mind whether I did enough for the kids when they were small, if I loved them enough or was a good and present mother. I observed them, kept track of them, archived their memories and important moments, now completely safe in more than 25,000 digitally preserved images. There is proof. We have lived a good life together.
Bereft and despair have left me, for now, and new words have entered my heart: grateful, abundant, rich.
(If you are looking for a way to archive your memories, check out Alicia’s website. This was not at all a sponsored post, but I found that my thoughts were not complete without honoring and acknowledging the giant boost forward that Alicia provided.)