How to hold on to family memories
Analyze and digitize old loose images.
Those shoeboxes full of old black-and-white prints, the dusty albums you took possession of during a move, the slides no one has looked at in 20 years since the cumbersome slide projector broke -- they're a trove of memories just waiting to spring back to life.
First get them in shape for viewing. Many old family pictures from the 1970s and earlier were taken in 35mm slide format. Check under your parent's bed or on high closet shelves for those white plastic storage cases, round Kodak carousels, or pastel Opta-Vue cases from the 1940s and 1950s. Digitally scanning old slides and prints converts them into JPEG or TIFF formats, which you can then save onto CDs or DVDs or an external hard drive. You can do this at home with a digital scanner or send them to a photo lab. If your parent has vision problems, she may enjoy the project more if she can view the enlarged images on a big computer screen.
While you're at it, preserve the images for the future. Digitizing all the images can be time-consuming and expensive, but it's worth at least weeding through them to select key images to scan, such as portraits. Digital archiving also allows you to make multiple copies of priceless old photos and documents -- wise in the event of a fire or other disaster. You'll also save these images from the natural ravages of time, such as fading, discoloration, or mold.
Ideally, relocate the vintage originals into archival-quality albums or photo boxes. (Look for acid-free paper or cardboard). If you don't have time, whatever you do, remove them from the film-covered pages of old "magnetic" albums, which are highly acidic and hasten deterioration.
Be sure to transfer old home movies -- your parents' wedding, your first steps, that family trip to Disneyland -- to DVD as well.
Now you're ready to enlist your parent's help in sorting, identifying, and dating the old photos. Even if she's fuzzy on the details, she's apt to recognize more old faces than you are, or she can help you sort out piles loosely divided by era. Make notes lightly in pencil on the backs of photos or underneath images in albums. Start with a handful at a time so as not to overwhelm her.
Pore over photo albums, old and new.
Turn off the TV set on your next visit and pull out the old family album instead. Ask prompts as you go: Who is that? What happened to him? What's happening here?
Don't rely on your own memory -- jot down the stories you're told and add them to the album later. Under the pictures, write down the names of people in the photos and their relationships, even those you don't think you'll forget. You're also preserving history for your own children and grandchildren.
In some families the volume of albums is overwhelming. You could make a great gift for your parent and your relatives by culling selected pictures and creating a customized photo book. These feature digital images printed right onto the pages of a hardbound or spiral-bound book. Pull together an overview of your parent's life or just one portion (her childhood, time in the service, a particular trip or job). Check out Kodak Gallery, Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Apple for resources. If you or a relative is an ace cropper, you can also turn old photos into scrapbooks that serve a similar purpose.
Buy a fill-in-the-blank memory book.
Parents who enjoy writing but lack the confidence or ability to stick to a narrative might welcome a ready-made memory book, which is full of prompts with spaces for answers. Sold at bookstores and gift shops, some memory books are general while others focus on childhood, marriage, or Christmas and other celebrations. A parent who's resistant about dredging up childhood memories for you might enjoy filling in a memory book intended as a gift for her grandchildren.