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Saving Drowning Memories, One Photo at a Time

Saving Drowning Memories, One Photo at a Time

Last November my teenagers bought me AirPods for my birthday. Spending so much of their own money to get me pieces of fancy technology made me feel loved.

But I’m not a fancy girl.

I have an old phone, our TV feels ridiculously large, I don’t own a watch (much less a smart one), and if it were up to me, Alexa would be kicked to the curb. 

But I have a husband who loves that stuff and two teens who work and volunteer in tech. So of course they all want me to jump on the bandwagon, and AirPods were one way to get me there.

On a sunny Saturday in March, I started watching a retreat online. I was the first one up that day, so I put in my (rarely-used) spiffy AirPods to respect my people and the last of their dreams. I watched for a bit, but when my distracted brain kicked in, I decided to simultaneously get a few things done. 

I don’t care if the “experts” tell me multi-tasking isn’t good for my brain or isn’t even a real thing. I dabble and I like it. As long as I don’t go crazy with too many things at once, I feel extremely productive and accomplished.

(Cue the humility.)

Fire & Water

After prepping breakfast potatoes, I threw them in the oven, set the timer, wiped the counters, filled the Brita, headed to the closet, and folded laundry. 

Wow… this signal stretches to the back of the house. So convenient! And these things are plenty loud without bothering anyone. I should use them more often. Listening to a live conference and folding laundry while potatoes sizzle and people sleep? Sweet!

Soon two of my guys are awake and I’m bouncing around the house, being ridiculously productive. Encouragement in my ears, hands free, potatoes roasting, chores getting done. Such a great Saturday!

Until a panicked yell interrupted the flow.

“Mohhhhhhhhm!” Even if you’re not a mom, you probably know the tone. 

I drop clothes, dash out of the closet, and have a terrible feeling the oven’s on fire. Sprinting down the hall, thoughts race.

Oh my gosh! How could potatoes catch on fire? Too much oil? Our oven’s old, but not that old. Could it spontaneously combust? Good thing we have fire extinguishers. What the heck?! How did this happen?!

Approximately 2.8 seconds later, I round the corner and hear it. The largest indoor waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life coming from our island. 

Zero fire, gallons of water.

Not just gallons of water flowing onto the tile floor though; that would’ve been easy. This was gallons of water flowing into a bin of photos. Photos from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Memories that didn’t yet exist online.

I couldn’t stop talking. “No. No, no, no. What the…? Oh no! Where…. Nonononono. How did…. Oh my gosh. What are the odds…? When…? Noooooooo.”

Potatoes & Purified Pics

The culprit sat quietly on the counter: Mr. Brita, full to the brim and rapidly spilling over the edge onto the island. For some reason, our island doesn’t tilt toward the sink (lame), so it all went flowing off the end.

The day before, I asked our oldest son to bring our heavy photo bin to the kitchen so I could find a picture of me taking piano lessons for my blog post. After finding what I needed, I shoved the bin under the island so it would be out of the way for the night.

Now it was approximately 90% full of purified water, with photos floating to the top.

My husband and son rushed it outside and gently dumped it upside down, while the other one (who was now awake due to the commotion) grabbed a pile of beach towels.

The next few minutes were a bit of a blur as we scrambled to sop the water in two locations and googled how to save wet pictures. 

The most embarrassing part of the whole thing? It was my fault. The second most embarrassing part? I thought it was someone else’s. I didn’t even remember filling the Brita, much less walking away from it.   

I line up the pitcher, swing the faucet to the side, and fill the gallon jug multiple times a day. But I don’t just stand there for the 26 seconds it takes—I do other things in the kitchen until I hear the sound change and know it’s full.

Due to the fancy technology in my ears that morning, I couldn’t hear the dang waterfall and I walked away. (eye roll)

“I heard the sound, Mom, but I thought it was the potatoes sizzling.”

“Yeah,” my husband said. “I heard it too but thought you were cooking them on super high heat.”

I pulled envelope after envelope from the bin, still in disbelief. Small colorful ones from Longs and large white ones from Costco. Limp paper pockets, barely holding our memories from some of the best decades ever. I worked quickly while sadness continued to bubble.

“Allllll my pictures from the 70s and 80s. And Micah’s childhood! Ugh!”

That Saturday had the potential to be full of cleaning, paperwork and emails. Instead, I spent most of the day on the floor, peeling pictures one by one and wondering if they were all ruined. 

By that evening, 3 sheets, 8 blankets and 15 towels lined the floor of every single room, holding 5 decades of our faces, friends and family.

Deep thought: When I don’t make certain things a priority (getting my pictures out of the garage and into albums, photo boxes, etc.), circumstances have a tendency to do that for me.

Lessons Learned

Turns out most of my mild panicking was pointless. Here’s what I’ve learned about photos:

  • Unless they’re ancient, pictures can stay in water for up to 48 hours without damage. After about four hours of laying them out, I realized I didn’t need to worry about working so fast. The wet ones pulled apart easily; dry ones, not so much. The few I had to re-rinse all survived.
  • They dry best when you lay them out flat, face-up, on something absorbent.
  • Let them dry longer than you think you need to. Any moisture at all will make them stick together when you re-stack them. About 24 hours with fans on was sufficient. 

Photo Storage No-No’s

If you’re older than 40, there’s a strong possibility you had/have your pictures in old albums with magnetic plastic or black paper. If you do nothing else after reading this blog post, please… for the love of film… take them out of those albums. 

Your pictures are better off in almost anything besides those. Don’t feel guilty if they’ve already started to yellow, just move them to an acid-free environment ASAP.

The second worst place to store photos is in an attic, basement, or garage. Photos hate moisture and heat, so keeping them in climate-controlled areas is best to avoid mold.

Photo Storage Yes-Yes’s

Here are the things photos love and need:

These are the Novelinks Acid-Free Transparent Photo Storage Boxes. The case comes with 16 4×6 organizer boxes and is ready to divide and conquer your favorite memories.

Photos also prefer the dark. Basically treat your pictures like expensive potatoes and you’ll be good to go. Dark and dry for the win. 

Organized Chaos

Good news: we saved about 98% of our pictures in the bin. Glory glory hallelujah. 

Bad news: it took days weeks out of my life getting them reorganized.

Good news: we’re lighter on our feet. I tossed over 50 photos of people we didn’t remember, doubles I never shared, and blurry shots I never liked. I’m also mailing extras I don’t want/need to friends and family. 

Best news: Our pictures are more organized than ever. But I did it differently this time. Instead of keeping every photo in date order, I grouped them by categories:

  • Doug’s sports, Carrie’s sports
  • Mount Hermon Summer Staff
  • 1st apartment, 1st home
  • Friends 
  • Seattle Christmases
  • Professional family photos
  • Coaching
  • Pets
  • Cousins
  • Mexico Life

Etc. and amen! This way it will be much easier to find what I need without thumbing through every single envelope in a whole decade looking for that one shot.

Alexa? Where’s that picture of me in the 70s with the fro?

“Is this the one you’re looking for?”

Have you ever had a photo flood? Share your tips & tricks in the comments!

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16 Responses to Saving Drowning Memories, One Photo at a Time

  1. You never disappoint, Sister. I LOVE the way you write. You’re freaking brilliant. My goal is to organize all the photos before I die. Thx for the great ideas of categories. Wanna come over sometime and help?
    xoxo

    • Wow, Marti… thank you for your kind words. You’re the first of my mom’s friends to throw the fake F-word my way, and I receive it. Haha.

      Organizing your photos before you die sounds like fun! I’m sure we at least have 30 years to figure it out, right? Name the date and time, amiga; I’ll be there with labels, snacks, and a smile.

  2. Carrie,I agree with Samuel. I too sound like a broken record when I say that I love your writing. What you have said really hits home too. Starting in August of last year I began digitizing all of Mount Hermon’s archives (photos (regular & large poster sized), videos (VHS, S-VHS, mini-dv, hi-8), slides, DVDs–reconverting them back to digital files, etc). This way (as Dan Dawson said), they can be readily shared/used and are now protected should there be any Brita overflows in any of their storage locations. I would like to give a shout-out to Dan Dawson for his patience in answering all of my e-mail questions about what to digitize (& for his informative response to your blog). Not only are things saved like you noted, but it has been a fun project (as I am sure you have found as you have enjoyed things again). I have spent over 800 hours so far and have scanned probably 12-13,000 pictures and documents and digitize over 900 movies. A note to Samuel (& anyone else with a similar interest), let me know what Mount Hermon staff pictures you are interested in and I can let you know what I have (& send likes to my google drive to download them). My kids have enjoyed watching the raw footage of themselves from when they were at camp (2004-2010). Anyway Carrie, thanks for a very entertaining story that was funny and informative. I learned a lot (which I always enjoy) as I have been digitizing media for years now and always appreciate learning new things, but never in such a fun way as reading your blog. I always get that rush of anticipation when I get the e-mail notification that you have a new blog post. You are encouraging, informative & funny. Don’t ever stop writing.

    • Thanks, Gil. Yes, I’ve heard about your awesome work with MH photos; so glad that’s getting done! Wow–can’t believe you’ve already logged over 800 hours! Such helpful work that will benefit the camp for decades to come.

      Samuel thinks he was there in 1991. Maybe the staff picture at Victory Circle would be a good place to start.

      Your encouragement means a great deal, Gil. I know I have a desire to always write, but blogging has definitely given me a run for my money. Internal frustrations, perfectionism, technology issues, not having one specific message I’m known for, endless hours, insecurities, etc. have all played a part and made me want to quit at times. Readers like you certainly help me refocus and press on. Thank you.

  3. Oh my gosh, your pic with Amy is so cute! I love your crazy hair! I need to get my pics out of my magnetic albums (my Mt Hermon memories are in one)! This has happened to my husband while filling our water purifier. Nothing was ruined but it made a nice mess! Haha! I love the pic of the pics too! Time make these crazy tragedies funny. And you can weave them into a story.

    • Haha. That crazy hair was… yikes. 🙂 Yes, save the MH memories! Removing pics from those albums is easy, and gives you so much more space! If you watch TV at night, just grab an album and dismantle it like a boss. Better yet, commission all your people; everybody gets one album and you can pull them apart together. Wish I could sit there with you and help!

  4. We weren’t as fortunate as you. We had boxes of albums, yearbooks and photos in an outdoor laundry room. It saved storage space inside the home for items we used regularly. However a broken washing machine hose wiped out decades of memories. All the yearbooks, Jr. High through College went straight to the garbage. I could rescue some photos from the albums which automatically accomplished your recommendation to get them out of the magnetic sheet albums.
    They are now in plastic boxes underneath my bed. Still lots of room for improvement. Maybe someday…..

    • Oh, shoot! So sorry to hear about all of your yearbooks, Karen. Glad you could rescue the photos. I still have so much room for improvement as well. Great intentions of getting photos into albums, scrapbooking, etc. I’m a tad more motivated now, but we’ll see. Life has a way of keeping me in the moment and only dealing with today’s priorities. Grr.

  5. So glad your pictures survived! I, too, have old pics from late 60’s – early 2000’s and organizing them has been on my “to do” list for about 20 years.
    We have to hold our retractable faucet over our Brita, so we can’t walk away, but I have had my share of multi-tasking regrets. Great post and thanks for the tips!

    • Glad I’m not the only one who has had photo organizing on their to-do list for about 20 years. It just never felt like a desperate priority, so there they sat. Of course, this was just the first three decades… I still have to do the early 2000s. (meh) Great to hear from you, Lydia!

  6. I’m a technology geek, so this’ll be absolutely no surprise coming from me…but here is my solution to problems like this:

    I make it my rainy day project… I grab a bundle of photos and I start scanning them. Once they are scanned I add as much “meta data” to them as I can without taking too much time… date, people in it, location, a title, whatever is known about it. Once that is done, they flow in to the thousands of other photos I have scanned. With that additional text on them, I can type in a search for a topic, or person, or location, and hundreds of photos pop up helping narrow my search.

    When I go to visit Ellen’s childhood home… I borrow their scanner and get to work on her old pictures. When I visit my dad I grab an album and scan a few.

    Then, to avoid digital disaster (which is as common or more common than physical disasters like yours) I implement my backup plan… at minimum I have them on two different hard drives in two different locations. One copy is with my computer, and a second is in a separate outbuilding in a metal box down low on the concrete floor (heat rises. Heat from summer or heat from fire). And of course I also would recommend sending a copy of all of them to the mystical “cloud” … that could be Dropbox, Google Photos, Flickr, SmugMug, iCloud, etc.

    The other benefit of scanning photos? Well, they might actually get used for something, they can be easily shared, they will never age or deteriorate, and one of the biggest benefits, they take up zero physical space and you’ll never have to load them in to a moving truck again!

    This was a great article and your advice on saving prints is excellent, you did all the right things and glad you had good results! Allowing prints to dry stuck together can be a far more challenging situation, so separating them and letting they dry flat is awesome. When the panic is setting in when you see wet prints, it is good to always remember it isn’t the first time they’ve been wet… at the photo lab they were all run through baths of chemicals and water 🙂

    • Pretty sure you win for the most helpful, practical, detailed comment in the history of my blog. Thanks for your great advice, Dan. It’s always nice having an expert around!

  7. I’m certain I’m starting to sound like a broken record but I absolutely love your style of story telling. It’s such a joy to read your writings. The simplicity yet to the point. Anyways, I’m glad you saved the Mount Herman Summer Staff! Pics. I would love to see some of those gems some day.

    • Haha. Thanks, Samuel. This post was longer than my others, but I couldn’t leave out parts of the story–it was too bizarre! Thanks for sticking with it. Now that we’re scanning our pics (both kids “volunteered” to “get paid” to do this) I’ll be able to send you a few. Were you the summer of ’91?

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