I spent last Sunday at my grandmother’s apartment, digging through piles of wrinkled photographs and yellowing documents for a writing project I’m working on about my family history. My grandmother has compiled a remarkably extensive paper archive of the family records—complete with clipped news articles, drawn silhouettes of my relatives from the early 19th century, and a picture book about a dog that my father drew when he was in the 4th grade.
My grandmother has saved everything, and is impeccably organized. The visit inspired me to go home and tear up my bedroom, looking for all of the notes and photographs I’ve been saving over past few years. While I was able to dig up some elementary school craft projects and gossipy notes from my friends written during 7th grade math class, I couldn’t find anything from the past five years.
It hit me that everything from high school on is on my laptop. I’ve lived on this Earth for over two decades, and the record of my non-digital personal life could fit in a shoe box. And that’s including my driver’s license and EagleOne card.
Memory, like music, is no longer tangible. The Internet, with all its intentions to keep friends and family “connected,” hurts more than helps in assuring legacy.
As I read the fading love letters that grandfather wrote my grandmother when they were courting, I realized all correspondence I’ve had with boyfriends past and present is on my Gmail account. All of the recent photos of me are posted on the internet and have never existed on paper. Pretty soon, print journalism will become obsolete, and all of my news clips will be digital. If I were to die tomorrow in a freak accident, will people have any way of remembering me without typing my name in Google? When I write up my will, will I have to include a clause giving someone access to my email account password? I don’t want my grandchildren to think I used that many emoticons in everyday speech.
Part of me wants to print all of my digital records out and make a scrapbook of things I want to be remembered by, in case we have to destroy all the computers in the world because they turned against us. And then there’s another part of me that remembers how awful I am at cutting in a straight line.
Looking back on my visit with grandmother, the most interesting part was not going through her old papers, but when we sat in her living room drinking tea, talking and laughing.
Really, it doesn’t matter that I haven’t been keeping a paper record of my life to supplement the digital one. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in preserving old memories that we forget about making new ones.
The next time I visit my grandmother, it won’t be for a school project.