Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Time of Inocence, A Time of Confidences

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: If you play bridge, you know James Montgomery Jackson--he's an expert who's written an acclaimed book about the game. If you're a Guppy, you know James Montgomery Jackson--he's the Guppy Website liaison.       If you like mystery authors, you'll soon know James Montgomery Jackson--his BAD POLICY (which is really really good) will be out in early 2013.

But right now Jim is handling another part of his life.  And he has a question for you. About

    by Jim Jackson
My father passed away mid-September. He had a good life spanning 87+years. I’m thankful that as deaths go, his was not too bad. He left us our memories and his stuff. I’ve been helping my mother understand her changed finances and figuring out what to do with Dad’s possessions.

 Some things were easy: Clothes went to a men’s shelter; scores of railroad books went to the local railway historical society. Since I have the room, the family history and genealogy records came to me for safe keeping.

What my father chose to keep had twice gone through a winnowing process. My parents had already downsized, first moving from the house my sisters and I grew up in to a smaller condo. More recently they moved to a two-bedroom independent-living apartment. The hundreds and hundreds of books Dad owned were reduced to those he was using for research on a book about the Erie Railroad he had recently finished, a rotating group of new acquisitions, reference books and those with family history attached. In recent years Dad sold some of his collections on eBay, converting former passions and memories to cash.

 Sometimes it takes me three blows to the head before something sinks in.

The process of sifting through Dad’s stuff got me thinking (third whack) about what each of us values as evidenced by what we keep. This is personally tough for me (and why I need multiple wake-up calls). 

I come from good New England stock—you know, the kind of people who build an addition to the family barn to store the current generation’s excess. Our two rules to live by are “never invade the principal,” (i.e. live off the interest and dividends, not the principal), and “don’t throw anything out because you never know when you’ll need it.”

In 1993 I had to move to Cincinnati for a new job before my house in New Jersey sold. I moved only a few things: kitchen necessities, a table and chairs, a reel-to-reel tape player for music, a bookcase with favorite books and a sleeping pad and bag. For exercise I brought my road bike. I was very happy for the year I lived that minimalist living style. But as soon as my house sold, I bought a large Victorian near the University and brought everything I owned from New Jersey. I even had room for more stuff.
My protagonist in Bad Policy (Barking Rain Press, 3/1/2013 publication), Seamus McCree, is a financial guy. Although he grew up in Boston, he was common-man Southie, not blue-blood Brahmin. He recognizes that not invading the principal is an artificial constraint only the very rich can afford. However, he has not faced the necessity of downsizing, so when his Cincinnati house is partially destroyed he loses all his possessions. The bad guys were responsible in his case, but the how and why don’t really matter. Thousands just lost their homes due to Hurricane Sandy, and thousands before have lost theirs to other hurricanes or tornadoes or floods.

As an author, what interests me is how each individual responds to his personal disaster. What do they most miss?

I had a boss whose house burned to the ground. He told me he most regretted losing his family pictures. That resonates with me. Pictures are triggers to my memory. With them I can recall vast swaths of my life; without them, I remember very little. I do not claim this as a virtue; in fact I see it as a flaw that I need pictures as a crutch. I shared my flaw with Seamus.

Today it appears that many, many Americans are like my New England ancestors: unwilling to dispose of any possession, regardless of its current usefulness. Off-site storage areas have sprouted throughout the country like mushrooms the year after loggers clear-cut a hardwood forest. Our American creed is apparently that rather than make a decision about what possessions we can pass on to new owners to appreciate, we’ll pay monthly fees to store our excesses. Most of what we store we do not really value. Our children hope we dispose of them before we die.

What interests me is which possessions we most want to hold on to and why we make the choices we do. I have the hardest time throwing away any book—even those I think are poorly written and boring. Only after I retired did I pitch most of my college text books.

Yet, like my boss of thirty years ago and my protagonist Seamus McCree, I would gladly give up every book I own for access to my pictures.

With digitizing and cloud storage, I should be able to safeguard those memories—but I have left them at risk. As I write this I am feeling the vibrations of the bell tolling in my head for the third time. When I quiet the ringing, I sing to myself Paul Simon’s song, “Old Friends” from the Bookends album. The closing stanza reads:

Time it was and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences.
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories.
They’re all that’s left you.

We’ve all probably played around with those hypothetical questions about which books (songs, historical people, whatever) you would take with you to the mythical island where you’ll be isolated until rescue. Instead, fast forward your life to when you are (say) 93 and have to live in a single room. What do you choose to keep with you? What are you doing to protect that now?

For me it’s photographs, and I’ve set myself the task to digitize and secure them as quickly as I can.


  1. Photographs. Yes. Me too. And letters, the old fashioned kind, from my daughter and husband seem very important now.

  2. Photos and family records are important for generations. My cousin is our family historian. He sent me a bunch of photos and records attached to email, which I've copied to my hard drive. But, I think for both of us, storing them on the cloud maybe an added measure of insurance.

    I once dropped an external hard drive and ended up at the Geek Squad rescuing financial records to the tune of $1500.00 in forensic sleuthing. Had I put my records into the cloud, I wouldn't have had to spend the money or undergo the anxiety. There are privacy issues, but when the records are of sentimental value what is the risk? (Don't start plotting!)

  3. Hank -- Thanks for inviting me to participate on Jungle Red Writers. Awesome news about Suspense Magazine choice of The Other Woman. Richly deserved, I may add.

    Reine -- I wonder at the true loss of ditching physical letters for emails, Facebook and Twitter. It's hard to imagine getting the same feeling reading through an archive of family postings that I get picking up letters written by an ancestor (which are what fills those three tin boxes in the picture).

    EB -- I'm a bit leery of cloud storage myself (showing my age, I suppose) both because of the security aspect, but also wondering what happens if my provider goes bankrupt and someone takes their servers as collateral for bad loans.

    You can purchase inexpensive encrypting software to provide another level of security.

    ~ Jim

    PS I'm about to strap on my car and boogie down the road. I should get home sometime in the afternoon and I'll stop in again.

  4. So many good thoughts here, Jim--thanks for visiting us and raising them! My father died last year also and my husband and I were the ones tasked with clearing out his stuff and deciding what would be shipped to his assisted living room in Florida. He had moved several times, but he still had books and books and books, mostly history. We discovered an entire subcategory about white women who'd been abducted by Indians:).

    Anyway, it's not easy to winnow down in advance. The idea of doing something with thousands of random photographs brings me to my knees. What method are you using for digitizing?

    And congrats on the book--sounds great!

  5. Thanks, Hank, both for your giving us this piece and to Jim for your wise comments. As a child my family moved each year to a different town or state, thus I am an adult without a strong sense of " home" or of possessions. I lived through many huirricanes in Va. and N.C. and am aware of the rapidity of how things vanish in a flash! But,as a senstive person and a writer, I am very aware of how desperately painful the loss of even tiny possessions can be to victims of a monster like Sandy - and my heart goes out to all of them! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  6. Hi, Jim! Born-again Cincinnatian here, living in Anderson for the last 31 years.

    The loss of letters saddens me, too. My husband traveled for the first 15-18 years of our relationship and I still treasure his letters, but email does not have the same permanence or importance. I've tried printing them out, which is less satisfactory than seeing a loved one's handwriting, tear stains/coffee stains, etc. It's hard to perfume an email, too.

    A couple of years ago I started scanning in family photos for my three daughters, and other family members. As the oldest of four kids I have a lot of family photos, plus pictures of my three girls for the last 42 years (can that be possible? Must be--my oldest daughter's birthday is Saturday). It makes me nervous to have all our pictures in one house, and replicating them for each of the girls will make it more likely that their memories will stay around, maybe.

    Congratulations on the book! Will you be signing at Joseph Beth on some near-future date?

  7. Excellent post and one that has made me realize I need to get back to scanning photographs. I've spent a lot of hours doing some of the old family pictures, but have miles to go before I sleep.

    Other things we hold on to - oh my. Donald and I both "collect" (I hate the word hoard). When we moved to a much smaller house several years and parted with a lot of stuff (not books though), I promised myself not to accummulate quite as much as I had in the past. And I don't, except books. Well, and maybe some pottery - okay, too much pottery . . . .

    Cutting down on the number of books we bring home has been solved somewhat by buying certain books in electronic format. I'm working on that pottery twitch I get every now and then.

  8. Such an interesting question -- not just what do we keep but what, against all reason, can we not throw away. I've kept my mother's reading glasses (she died when I was 22) and for a long time my grandmother's rubber band ball.

    My husband is a collector of books. It drives me crazy that we have filled every bookcase in the house and even if we got another set of shelves there'd be no place to put it. Yesterday he came home from yard sales with a signed, limited edition copy of Eleanor Roosevelt's "This I Remember." We'll find a place for it, though right now its on the floor.

  9. A big box of photogrphs frm my mother's estate just arrived, in fact..and I don't have a scanner. Some of the phots are those litle ones with scalloped edges...

    Looking at them, I realized there could be some people that right now no one would recognize but me.

    Wow. There's a thought.

    Anyone have any scanner insights? And thanks, Jim, for the reminder.

    I am off to a librry speech in Scituate! Back later this aft..and Jim--tell us more about your book! I think its terrific--as if Robert B Parker's Spenser moved to Ohio.

  10. Hank, I was using the scanner on my multi-use printer, but it was so unwieldy. Then I bought a hand scanner, recommended by a friend, but haven't actually used it. (Duh.)

    The one I have is similar to this one:

  11. I love photograph boxes--even more than pasted up memory books. What interests me most is the randomness of finding a photo from 1976 next to a photo from 2011.

  12. Our library has a scanner - it's terrific. Even does those with the wiggly edges. You scan a bunch and then email them to yourself. My husband's been making it through all our ancient family photos.

    Put a batch on a flash drive and it makes a fabulous Xmas present. (It's a suggestion I read last year on Facebook and have been doing it ever since.)

  13. I am the oldest of five. When our mom died not quite fifteen years ago, I was elected to be the Keeper of the Photgraphs. (Dad died about thirty five years ago. My parents did not have a lot of money, so there are no heirlooms of any kind in our family. Just books. Lots and lots of books, in addition to the photos.) Some of the albums are in bad shape. A coupe of years ago, one of my sisters volunteered to scan all the photos for us. Eventually, she hopes to have a DVD or CD (or whatever...I am not technologically intelligent!) for each of us. She and I have been trying to identify the photos. A little over a year ago, she and I got together with "girl" cousins on our dad's side of the family a couple of times to share photos and also family stories. Again, my sister brought her scanner. I wish we would do something like this with relatives on our mom's side of the family. On Thanksgiving, I will be with that sister and we plan to share as many family stories as we have time to remember with whatever relatives are there, using her dictation technology...again, I do not know the correct name of it! (I have a sneaking suspicion that it will eventually fall to me,as the oldest AND a collector of trivial details, to help organize all the stories and details!)

    As far as other items are concerned, I have learned to live without a lot of things. If you were to see my basement storage room you would think of me as a hoarder. The majority of those items came from my mom's home and neither I nor my siblings have any desire to own them. I tupidly volunteered to store them in my basement in case any of my nieces and nephews someday ha a use or desire for any of them. It has not happened yet,there is no value to any of those items (Mom was a crafter so some are craft supplies)and I am sure that puddles from hurricanes and other water related incidents have caused mold and mildew. Someday...I do not know when I will find the time or energy...I will need to get down there and start tossing things out. (When we cleaned out Mom's house, I jokingly told my siblings that because I am the oldest, I will most likely die first and they will probably be faced with going through them again!)

  14. I think the emotional connections that are attached to my mother’s belongings are the main reason it is so very hard to part with things she saved, the things she cherished. But the photographs, the cards, the letters are the most treasured since they are part of a time we shared, but a time we can never reclaim except through their words and images. Sometimes the memories are everything . . . .

  15. Lucy,

    I'll bet our fathers shared a book in common. Until Dad gave it to a local historical society he had an early copy of Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. She was captured as a girl in Penna. during the French and Indian War and raised with her captors. She later moved with her son and husband (who died during the trip) to the lower Genesee River Valley in New York State. When "rescued" after the American Revolution, she chose to remain with the Indians who had taken her in after her husband's death.

    I am scanning pictures with an Epson Photoscanner. It does a nice job and allows for various touch-ups. The process is time consuming. I know there are businesses that will scan them all for you and put the results on disk. I have too much fun looking at the pictures to hand the task to someone else.

    ~ Jim

  16. Karen,

    With digital technology today it's easier to have multiple copies of pictures, but we can't do much with personal letters except try to keep them safe.

    I hope to work out something with Joseph Beth for the spring -- fingers crossed.

    And since Hank asked for more about Bad Policy here's the back cover blurb:

    Seamus McCree returns from a routine business trip to discover Cincinnati police have found a body in his basement. Before a shotgun blast to the head killed him, the victim received shots to both ankles, knees and elbows. No one has seen an “IRA six pack” since the IRA troubles in Northern Ireland.

    Once the cops learn Seamus was acquainted with the victim, they exclusively focus their attention on him. Seamus, a financial guru and family man, decides he must use his talent for logic and hard work to prove his innocence. He has no clue why someone is framing him until he uncovers a trail that leads back to his Boston roots. There he uncovers a poisonous family feud dating from the divorce of Boston’s Irish mafia and the Provisional IRA in the 1970s that perverts all logic.

    Driven by his need to understand, Seamus ignores warnings from the police, friends and enemies and continues to dig for the truth. When his son, a recent college graduate, his bodyguard girlfriend and his institutionalized mother are threatened, he belatedly realizes that others don’t play by his Mr. Nice Guy rules. He must challenge his personal understanding about right and wrong and decide just how far he will go to protect those dear to him.

    ~ Jim

  17. Hallie,

    It sounds as though your family has come to a good solution. I have to say that the one concern I have about digital conversion is whether technology a couple generations from now will remember about j-peg, gif, tif etc. file formats we use now.

    Years ago Dad converted a bunch of home movies to video casette, which I'm now getting converted to DVDs -- but with each conversion comes fidelity loss.

    I don't know of a perfect solution, but better to try something than give up on it all.

    ~ Jim

  18. Deb,

    You've hit on a key point about identifying people in the photos before no one remembers. I have some old photos labeled in a great-great grandparent writing that tell of place, but not people (because they all knew, of course). I sure do wish they had also stated the obvious.

    But what fun to get together with older relatives and pick their brains. In my experience, even if they don't agree, all kinds of stories come up that you'd never get to hear otherwise.

    ~ Jim

    ~ Jim

  19. Joan,

    I know what you mean about emotional attachment. I have handing on a wall a framed newspaper clipping my Great-Aunt Katherine had on her walls.

    It describes the marriage of Tom Thumb.

    I have no idea why she kept it, but I keep it as a reminder of a great-hearted wise woman.

    ~ Jim

  20. Kaye,

    My mother has a large collection of small figurines. I told her that when the time came, I had no interest in them because they had to be dusted.

    Her reply was that one advantage of getting older is she didn't see dirt as well.

    ~ Jim

  21. The impermanence of email hit home after ten years' worth of correspondence on AOL, faithfully backed up, turned out to be useless without the old AOL interface. Remember all the CDs they handed out at the office supply stores? I must have had 100 of them, but they stopped working with maybe the XP version of Windows.

    While I would truly mourn the loss of family photos, it helps to remember that, until not much more than 100 years ago, such things did not even exist. Only the very wealthy were able to reproduce and save for posterity the likenesses of loved ones.

    Jim, I'll watch for your name on the Jo-Beth list of authors. Good luck!

  22. Hi Jim,

    Your tin boxes are prettier than mine, and I have only one. My father told me where to find it when he was dying. It holds the family secrets and treasure and, while not a memoir, is the centerpiece of my work in progress.

    I have several other boxes, but they are plastic and probably bad for my letters. I have to make a better home for them. They contain all the letters from and to my grandparents, my children, and my husband. They are from my daughter who died last September; childhood friends; all the love letters from my husband that he wrote every day– before we were engaged and after– all through college... often two letters a day... his family letters including letters to grandparents written from boarding school.

    These do not exist on email. You are right.

  23. Oh, KAren in OHio...that is so scary. What if Facebook disappears? Hmm. With all those photos? SHould we start planning for that? How?

  24. Oh, Karen – I hadn't seen your comment… how awful to lose all of that mail on out of date CD datastorage! I read somewhere that you have to keep transferring it to the next updated system, and that's mostly done directly on the computer now, then stored on an external drive, that also has to be updated regularly.

  25. Yikes, I DO have to do something about all those photos in boxes. Also the old Super8 movies that I would love to see again. Our daughter's first step is in there somewhere. I don't trust digital backups. I have plenty of old floppy disks that I can't access. I'm not sure how to go about this!

  26. Hank, whenever I see a photo on Facebook that I want to keep (usually of my kids or grandson), I immediately copy it to my hard drive.

    Which, speaking of, probably should get backed up, forthwith.

  27. Yup, doing it.

    Save save save. And getting a nice tin box, too.

    See you all tomorrow! Thanks, Jim! Cannot wait to see the real book! Gang, it's terrific.

  28. In 1991 I was part of a group that compiled stories about the 1991 Oakland firestorm. One thing I found of interest was how different people's reactions were to profound loss. There were those who mourned daily--and others who said, "It was just stuff--I'm alive, and that's what counts." I knew a woman whose son was at home when the fire swept through. He called his mother who was out of town to find out what she wanted him to take when he fled. Photos! Only later did she remember that she had put all the really important photos in a bag, planning to take them to be copied. Her son took all but those. She never told him.

    I'm not a big "keeper" myself, but there are odd things I can't seem to part with (a lime green gravy boat, for example). I think I'm lucky that both my parents came from "dirt poor" backgrounds. Less stuff to pass along!

  29. Hank! Just this morning, I discovered a new app for scanning hard copies of photos. It's called ShoeBox. So far so good... there are several others, but this one works great with documenting my family history pages on There are a bunch of others, and most are free.