“The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
William Faulkner got that right. The past is always with us, through our memories, daily reminders, and all those brittle, yellowing photographs, slides and VHS tapes stored in garbage bags in the bottom of your closet.
The great Southern novelist wrote those iconic words in “Requiem for a Nun,” and I’m thinking he came up with the line right after Mrs. Faulkner directed him to “organize” his study, by which he knew she meant, “Throw out all your old crap.”
“What crap?” he probably asked, more to himself than to her, knowing her reply would be, “The crap that’s been lying under two inches of dust for the past four decades.”
With that, thinking she might invade his domain to clean up, he surely jotted down another of his novels’ titles, “Intruder in the Dust.”
“The past is never dead” thing might have worked for Faulkner, but I knew when my wife, Tia, told me to “organize” my study, she’d never buy the idea of the past never being the past (and thus not needing organizing).
No, her tone sounded more like that of a burning bush, so I, her obedient Moses, after a brief delay of, well, the entire summer and most of autumn, avoided the multiple leaning towers of books, papers, and other whatnot adorning the floor, and moseyed into the closet. There I unearthed, like an archeological dig, several bags and boxes brimming with photographs, slides, VHS tapes, 35-millimeter film reels still in their canary yellow Kodak boxes, flaking photo albums, and portraits of ancestors looking stern as my third-grade homeroom teacher whose name was, I kid you not, Mrs. Stern.
One afternoon my daughter, Molly, visiting from Connecticut, and my son, Jay, living at home, found me lugging a variety of heavy, overflowing tote bags into the family room. I imagine a warm, cozy, gathering unfolding, much like Christmas morning, each of us oohing and aahing at the innumerable slides, photos, videos, etc., like we do when unwrapping presents. We marvel at a manifold of shots of my 4 year-old mother building sandcastles on a Long Island beach; my brothers and I monotonously tightening screws for a rowboat kit my father bought; my cute, pudgy self, plastic pistol holstered, red cowboy-hatted, ready for mustachioed horse rustlers; Jay in the sandbox, just before he memorably announced, “I love dirt!”; and Molly climbing a jungle gym, gaining the confidence of women spacewalkers.
But my Millennial minions have eyes only for cell phones or laptops. Even Tia shows disinterest, rendering me persona non grata. The past is not only not dead, it’s irrelevant. The immediate gratification of Instagram, Facebook, emails, video games, and Googling Everything You Ever Wanted To Know conquers any inclination to relive what’s gone before.
Instead, I scour alone hundreds of images, pitching duplicates and anything boring enough for me to wonder what necessitated a shutter’s click. Into recycling go pre-John Hancock Building Magnificent Mile slides, aerial shots of Meigs Field, Glen Ellyn’s sinking cardboard boats.
I save some. They’ll be digitized, but they won’t be the same. The quality may even be better than the original, but the memories will be prompted by pixels, not the sudden flash of a slide viewer’s light or a VCR player’s soft whir.
Those parts of the past will, indeed, be dead. “Out, out, brief candle….”
• Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches English at Marmion Academy, and facilitates Geneva library’s writing workshop. His poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.