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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

What to Do with Those Old Papers

“You still have boxes of mom and dad’s stuff?” I twist my finger in my ear to make sure I’m hearing clearly. I’m on the phone with my brother who’s 3,000 miles away in California. Good thing, or I might have to fill his bellybutton with glue once again while he’s sleeping. He’s moving, prompting this confession to his sister, the purge queen.

Our parents have both passed on, mom, most recently, two years ago. Now Craig tells me he’s been holding onto boxes of their stuff because “I can’t bring myself to go through them.”

Great. Here I thought we were done. Several years ago, many of you will recall, I cleared out my parents’ home of nearly 50 when they moved into assisted living. The effort required a bulldozer, smelling salts, an iron stomach, a therapy dog, and the stamina of a triathlete.

“There’s more?”

He texts me a picture of 10 banker boxes stacked, and neatly labeled. He’s moved them from his garage to his office. I’d be coming to California in a couple months, I told him, and agreed to set aside an afternoon to deal with the boxes. That day came earlier this month.

At my brother’s architecture firm, I find the boxes stacked in the model shop. I have plenty of room to unpack, sort and toss. I brush my palms together, ready to make short work of this project and summon a large trash bin. I make stations: trash, scan, donate, keep.

I crack open box one. Ah, geeze, all photos. That will take forever. I push it aside, and move to box two, hoping to get some momentum. It’s worse. Soon I am flooded, physically and emotionally, with images and documents of my parents’ lives before kids, before each other. Mom’s college term papers. Their vaccination records. (Mom, always the public health nurse.)

I find commendations from Dad’s days in the Marines, his work history beginning with his offer letter from the engineering firm where he worked for 30 years, (starting hourly pay $1.75), the photo album of his retirement, a book of his patents.

What am I supposed to do with all this?

At turns, I am laughing like a monkey troop, welling up like a homecoming queen, and reading as soberly as a Supreme Court Justice. Five hours later, my brother interrupts my reverie to remind me of our dinner reservation. He looks around the formerly tidy model shop, now ransacked.

“I’m not going to finish,” I confess, looking sheepish.

Craig looks at the six unopened boxes. His mouth makes a taut seam.

“I need another full day, at least, probably two,” I concede.

So much for my plan to plow through the boxes in one afternoon, and send an edited pile of photos to, where high-speed scanners reduce mountain heaps of snapshots into tidy DVDs in minutes.

The scanners are working overtime lately after a year of hurricanes and wildfires, says owner Mitch Goldstone. “Times like these make people realize all can be gone in a flash.”

I’ve called to tell him about the mess I’m in. He gives me a pep talk. “Every day I see photos and documents destroyed by mildew, moisture, high temperatures, dirt and bugs. Those old storage boxes will just disintegrate,” says Goldstone, whose company scans 300,000 photos a day, which is nothing when you consider that Americans have 3.5 trillion analog photos sitting in shoeboxes taking up storage space and risking permanent loss.

However, the biggest enemy of all, he adds, is procrastination.

“The holidays are the perfect time to gather the family, sort through photos, and create stacks to digitally save,” said Goldstone. “Sharing old stories will be a lot better than talking about politics.”

When faced with a mountain of paper memories, here’s how to sort and save:

  • Start with the photos. Select those you want; organize them by year and event. (I tossed all photos of landscape, people I didn’t know and duplicates.) Write on an index card “Halloween 2007.” Secure the card to the photo bundle with a rubber band. (The card gets scanned, too.) Goldstone’s company will provide a self-addressed, shoebox size container that holds 1800 photos, which costs $145 to scan.

  • Sort important papers. Old letters and certificates are often too fragile to scan. For those, grab your smart phone and take pictures, says Goldstone. Batch photos on your phone, then save them, along with your DVD of scanned photos, to your laptop, thumb drive, the cloud, and Google photos. Send copies to family members, and keep a back-up off site.

  • Verify capture. Once old photos and documents are scanned or photographed, verify that the images are properly saved, and preserved in multiple places. Then – deep breath -- you can toss the originals. Though this idea always makes my stomach fall like an elevator in a mine shaft, Goldstone is right. Scanned and tossed is saved not lost. Moreover, scanned and stored is preserved, and, once archived, the quality will keep.

  • Toss everything? Just about. Hold onto only the most important keepsakes, that letter that still smells like your mom’s perfume, or that black and white portrait of your father in the cardboard folder with the deckled edge. But beware the temptation to cling to too much.

  • Plan for digital migration. Anyone who remembers floppy discs knows how technology changes. To protect against “digital rot,” save images in several formats, so data can always be retrieved and moved to the next generation of technology or relatives.

CAPTION: Preserved for life -- Mitch Goldstone as a boy in 1967 at Disneyland with his father, who died two years later. “Imagine if someone had tossed this?” he asks. Instead, photo restoration made the old photo look new again.

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