Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Documenting Ourselves

Last week, I traveled to Upper Michigan for my grandmother's (mother's side) funeral. She was 95 years old. A little over a year ago, my other grandmother died of Alzheimer's; she had lived (I think) to 87 years. There's some long-life genes floating around my family.

My brother, my parents, and I stayed the night at the house of my grandfather (father's side) - now my only livng grandparent - who was not at home because he was being kept at the nursing home for a few weeks following complications in the wake of a bad infection and surgery. It was a tough week for grandparents.

In an extra room of the house, my brother found a few grocery bags full of old photographs and documents from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. My dad sat with my brother and I late one night and identified the people that he could: uncles, aunts, cousins; his own mother, no older than 8 years old, standing on a forest clearing in front of an old Studebaker or some other old car; himself, at a beach, perhaps five years old, with two of my uncles and our grandfather, probably not much older than myself. There were some old documents in the bag as well, including the high school report cards for both my grandmother and grandfather, and my grandmother's nursing school report card. (One of the comments written on the card said something to the effect of: "Has acne but pleasant personality.")

I couldn't help but think how unbelievably precious all these pictures and documents were; I don't mean precious in the sense of cute, but precious in the sense that most of the items in those bags were the only existing copies, the originals themselves. I felt grateful that someone had thought to keep them, to put them into these bags instead of throwing it all away, if for no other purpose than to be found and looked over on this one evening by my father, brother, and myself. I only wished that it were a more complete record.

Of course, part of the bitterness of the funerals of relatives is that they always serve as a reminder of our own mortality. I couldn't help but think about how our own children and grandchildren will cycle through our own photos from our youths. We document ourselves so thoroughly these days, the records of ourselves exist in electronic data. When our grandchildren want to remember us, will they look through our Facebook profiles, which by then we will have kept updated for decades? The thought of that disgusted me. Won't the glut of documentations of ourselves cheapen the memories of us? Or will our children and grandchildren be grateful that they have such a thorough documentation of us? Will they too, after the endless blog entries and the thousands of pictures and the podcasts and tumblers and twitters and whatever, wish they had more?

I suppose it's better to err on the side of over-documenting ourselves than under-documenting ourselves. Historians never wish that they had less record of an ancient people.

This might seem out of left field, but I recently saw a great documentary about Hurricane Katrina called Trouble the Water. The filmmakers met a couple from the ninth ward of New Orleans - the poor area of town that was hit hardest by the hurricane, and still lies mostly in ruin. This couple had videotaped their experience of making it through the storm itself (they had no car and could not evacuate). The first 15 minutes of Trouble the Water is cut together from this high-8 videotape footage. As I watched this sequence, I couldn't help but think "Thank God someone documented this." As much as I want to err on the side of having too much documentation, there is something wonderful about knowing that you are witnessing the only account of something, that you are holding, in your hand, the only photograph of that moment in time. There is something satisfying about having very little.