The last photo album

Memories collected, in a format that’s now a memory itself.

click to enlarge The last photo album - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
The last photo album

In the album he’s always smiling

There with sea-captain’s cap and the Eiffel

Tower in the background he leans by a bridge

You can tell he’d never hurt anyone…

After Jeanne wrote to Tim — our son in Hanoi — he wrote back immediately: “That’s the saddest letter I’ve ever read,” he said. And we all agreed. But it was time.

Jeanne and I were married in 1957, and right up to 1971, when we moved to Switzerland, we did what everyone else did with the photos we took. We looked at them for a few days, and then tossed them into a box, where they curled up in yellowing confusion. More and more, as we shuffled through them looking for Nana’s or Uncle Doug’s photo, we’d come across some smiling, vaguely familiar figure. “Never thought we’d forget what’s-his-name,” became our mantra.

Maybe we changed because the Swiss were so neat. The clerks in our Neuchâtel markets frowned as I pulled crumpled Swiss bills — which seemed too big for my wallet — from my crowded pocket. “Oh non monsieur,” they’d say, in a whisper, shaking a sad finger in my direction. I knew what they meant, and resolved to do better.

The scenery was spectacular; the town, nestled along the lake, was colorful; and our four young children grew very creative. Jeanne didn’t want to throw anything away, so she took a few of their little blue school notebooks and turned them into albums. These were an instant success: she mixed the photos with children’s drawings, poems, paper money, maps, postage stamps. These turned out to be — not a huge surprise, given Jeanne’s talent — works of art. So she made copies for the children and some friends and relatives. Before the year was over, we found a few large photo albums in thrift stores, started to fill them, and Jeanne’s album career was started.

By the end of 2011, she had 36 large albums, treasured by the entire family. Over the decades, the time Jeanne has taken with these albums continued to escalate. Because many people asked to see their photos — perhaps taken during a long-ago vacation or party — she devised an intricate Index, which she wrote out by hand on 3 x 5 cards, then typed into her computer; and then scanned onto CDs for the children. She divided them into three categories: Family, Friends, and Writers — hundreds of writers, a literary anthology — plus some large subdivisions, like “Students,” “Neighbors” — and one which I called “Everyone Under the Sun.”

It was amazing how often we turned to it. Recently, Nobel Peace Winner Henry Kissinger came up in a heated debate. Well, I said, we had dinner with the rascal once. Of course, I had to prove this, so we pulled out the cards, and there he was, in Jeanne’s neat printing: Kissinger, Henry; Vol. XVIII, p. 4. As usual, when we looked up the album, it led to other subjects and memories. We met Kissinger during the semester I was writer-in-residence at Davidson College and lived in a house on Lake Norman, North Carolina. One of my students also in those pages was Sheri Reynolds, whose second book was a choice for Oprah’s Book Club, and a major bestseller. When we wound up teaching with Sheri, many years later, at Old Dominion University, we were able to pull out the album with her student photo, smiling, sly, and promising. Kissinger was looking very serious on the adjoining page.

At family gatherings, the first group activity has been to gather around the latest — and earlier — albums. Our past would flow out and around us, in photo, poetry and art. But the time putting them together, indexing and replicating, had grown too much as our time and energy seep away. So when Jeanne sent out her last album, she wrote a letter: Dear Ones, This is the

last chapter. Time to pass the torch. Much love, Mom

Sic transit gloria mundi.

…Her favorite: in Vienna with back straight

and chins raised they waltz among the starchy rich

She turns these faded pages every night

He was a photogenic sonofabitch

—both quotes from “The Album” by Peter Meinke (in Night Watch on the Chesapeake, U. of Pittsburgh Press 1987)

Peter and Jeanne will be signing books — but not albums — at the Vero Beach Book Fair on April 1.