This week some workers at my school found a treasure trove of scrapbooks in a house that is due to be razed to make room for a new campus building.
The house was left to our school in a will.Â There is some sort of very involved story with the house … an alum of my school was married to a man, and she wanted the house left to the school.Â She died and her husband remarried and lived in the house for many more years.Â He and his second wife apparently committed suicide together because one of them was terminally ill.Â When he died, the house was then left to the school, in accordance with the first wife’s wishes.
Now, I can promise you that I don’t have all the facts of this story straight, but I’ve got enough of them to know that the story is complicated, sad, romantic, very poignant.
The scrapbooks are mostly from travels in the 1980s and early 1990s, all meticulously prepared.Â Ticket stubs, itineraries, menus, hotel stationery, post cards, photos, newspaper clippings, advertisements and much more, all labeled with an ink pen in a woman’s elegant handwriting.
Because the house will soon be leveled, our maintenance crew is cleaning it out completely.Â They brought the 18 scrapbooks to the library (where I work), and our librarian put them on a cart and invited the community to come peruse them.
Normally, this would be stuff I’d love, but instead of being fascinated with them, they are freaking me out.Â To see so many scrapbooks in one place, all of them there to be perused by strangers to the people who made them, depressed me.
Co-workers filed in and out of the library all day yesterday and again today.Â They hoisted books of interest to library tables to flip through, vicariously enjoying trips to exotic locales.Â Everyone was chatting about the extensive collection, about how many hours it took to assemble them.Â Labors of love.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about how material things cannot possibly go with us when we die.Â All the hours spent on those books, all the special memories compiled, just to be shared with people the travelers didn’t even know.Â I thought of how my own to-do lists include reminders not only to create scrapbooks, but to sort through pictures, print pictures, edit family videos, post it all on the Internet.
What will happen to my recorded memories when I die one day?Â Will my family enjoy them, or will they just be moldy old albums, interesting conversation pieces … is it a waste of time to record memories in pictures?Â in albums? on tape?Â Should we be spending more time experiencing life in the present moment instead of working so passionately to record it?
I think I was extra-sensitive about these scrapbooks because Monday was the three-year anniversary of my step-father’s death.Â The scrapbooks made me remember holding my step-father’s hand after he died, as I looked around the room at all his treasured possessions, thinking that wherever he was going, he sure wasn’t taking all those books, photos, trinkets and decorations with him.Â I couldn’t understand his death, but I could understand the this-world permanence of those objects hovering all around us.
I wanted to be happy about the moment the scrapbooks provided — it was actually kind of neat to see other teachers I haven’t chatted with in awhile, coming into the library, all of us sharing easy moments over objects of mutual interest.
When a fellow co-worker brought one of the albums back to the library, saying that it was making her office smell moldy, I knew I needed to call it a day.Â I left work, stopping off to have coffee with a dear friend.Â And then home to my family and some nice warm spaghetti.