A Jumble of Images, Captions to Follow

I've always dreaded filing snapshots in photo albums. To this day, I've never been caught up. As I write this, stacks of outtakes sit jumbled in a cardboard box.

Long ago I attributed this aversion to not knowing the best way - the right way - to organize these images in their binders. Though otherwise competent, I've felt cowed by the task that others seem to enjoy.

I admire friends and relatives who have elevated the keeping of their photos to an art, if not a science. Their confidence, combined with their various quirky approaches, has always amazed me.

My friend Jane, who takes exotic vacations, organizes each trip's pictures chronologically. (If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium.) Next to each picture she pastes a neatly typed paragraph telling where she was (Crete), what she was doing (parasailing), and how the weather was (perfect).

Another friend, Rita, uses her photo albums to chronicle life's thinnest slices. She fills pages with weekend visits to her sister's home, the opening of Christmas gifts at her parents' farm, the dragonboat race her husband, Jim, did with his co-workers last summer. (They came in last.)

Last year, Rita discovered a little motel in small-town Nebraska called "Rita's R and R." She posed under the bright yellow sign while Jim snapped her picture. Into her album it went.

Unlike Jane's album, Rita's has no room for printed narrative. Each time she visits, she leads me to the sofa, her album tucked under her arm. Then she narrates as she turns the pages across our laps. After telling me what I've "missed," she plops down a Post-It note bearing my name - to mark our spot for next time. It can feel like a forced march, but still her mastery awes me.

My sister Rosemary once commemorated our childhood years in our family home - a 100-year-old Wisconsin brick farmhouse - in a vinyl snapshot-sized theme album that sported an oval window in its padded leatherette cover.

For Christmas that year, she reproduced this masterpiece for each of her five siblings. I was grateful for this lovely albumette, but her organizational skills reminded me of my own photo-filing inadequacy.

MY friend Linda ducks the whole issue of photo albums by not taking pictures. While I applaud her liberation, I'm not willing to pay that price. I want pictures. It nourishes me to review them now and then. They serve as proofs of purchase for this life I've bought into.

My friends Mark and Jan maintain separate photo albums for her family and his. They keep another for trips, another of their pets, still another of friends. For photos falling into several categories (like the one of me dancing with their cat Hector), double prints are pressed into service. When I first learned about their method, it struck me as manageable. Yet like the others, it didn't feel quite right for me.

Recently it occurred to me that Mark and Jan, unlike the other friends I've mentioned, have never actually shown me their photo albums. I realized that they maintain their photos not for public display, but simply for their own pleasure.

This makes sense. After all, we take our vacations, raise our children, and live our lives to suit ourselves, not others. "Never mind how others do it," Mark and Jan's method seem to say; instead, each of us should organize our photographs - or not - by whatever method suits us. There is no "right" way, much less a "best" way.

I finally realized that I've had my own "system" all along: The photos I've slap-happily slipped into albums over the years include a nice mix of family, travels, friends, special events, and household remodeling projects. They're arranged roughly in the order they were taken. For me, rough is good enough.

Batches of recently developed snapshots will always sit in a cardboard box on my shelf, waiting to be winnowed, dated, and pressed into place. Occasionally I dig through them to freshen a memory or illustrate a story for a friend. This shuffles them a little more each time.

Oh, well. My jumble of images represents a full life, not a still life. So, the record of my past is a little disorganized. It should be, for so was the past itself. And in fact, so am I.

Not that I'd mind showing you my albums. But I'll write you no captions. And I won't march you through the pages. If you spy a shot you'd like to have, say so - I may still have the double print somewhere.

But be patient: I'll have to dig.

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