‘We found Mom. She’s safe.”
That was the text message I received from my brother in California. It came out of the blue.
We were at an open-air concert in Rishon Lezion and I hadn’t read the news. So I didn’t know about the massive fire that was devastating Northern California and the city of Santa Rosa in particular, where both my mother and brother live.
The smoke alarms at the Oakmont of Varenna senior retirement community began to blare around 12:30 a.m. The staff was soon banging on doors, waking up residents and telling them they had to get out – now!
That’s how, in the early hours of the morning, my 86-year-old mother found herself hurried out of her home with nothing but her pajamas. She didn’t have time to grab her purse or her meds.
She had no identification, no cash, no credit cards, no cellphone.
It took my brother and his girlfriend several hours to find her at one of the city’s many makeshift evacuation centers and then even more time to drive out of town through gridlocked roads.
Two agonizing days later, there was good news: The main building at Varenna, which included my mother’s apartment, had been spared. My brother’s neighborhood on the other side of town was OK, too.
But everything around Varenna, up and down Fountaingrove Parkway, had been utterly destroyed.
Once the danger had passed and I knew no family member’s life was at risk, I had time to reflect on the nature of possessions and “things.”
What would have been the impact if everything my mother had owned had been wiped out? Not so much the furniture or pots and pans or shoes and clothing, but the memorabilia.
My mother has all the family photos. They’re all in albums, the older snapshots faded and yellowing, but still a cache of nostalgia.
Another irreplaceable treasure: my father’s boxes of clippings – the thousands of articles he wrote over a 35-year career as a journalist in a time before there was a public Internet. Other than what might be stored on microfiche in the Hearst newspaper archives, these were the only copies of a lifetime of work.
Should we invest in digitizing our family’s visual and written history? I wondered. It’s expensive but not impossible. I’d already started such an ambitious project in Jerusalem.
A few years ago, when my old Hi8 camcorder died, I realized I had no way to access the hundreds of videotapes I’d made of my own children growing up. I found a firm in Ramat Eshkol that charged around NIS 25 a tape to convert everything to files. Now we can watch them whenever we want from any of the computers in the house. (And, yes, we do that from time to time, especially when the grandparents visit.)
What about other personal paraphernalia – the diaries I kept as a teenager, my diplomas and awards, CD-ROMs and even old floppy disks I’ve saved since the 1980s? Should I pay to back that all up to the cloud? And then pay whatever it costs, year after year, to keep it accessible?
I like to imagine my children will value such an investment; that they will regularly peruse this time capsule of their father’s creative output and will appreciate that I didn’t bequeath them boxes of physical detritus.
But will they? Or will the annual storage fee become an unnecessary financial burden that they will eventually pull the plug on, whether ceremoniously or with great anguish?
My friend journalist Michele Chabin is making the choice for her children. She posted on Facebook that, prior to a temporary downsizing while her home is being renovated, she tossed out thousands of articles, saving a mere 150 in total.
“Sadly, I didn’t have the time or energy to scan or even photograph them, so they’re just gone,” she wrote.
For the hoarders among us, though, there may be significance in our saving psychosis.
“Nostalgia is crucial for finding meaning in life and for combatting loneliness,” writes Ben Rowen in the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic.
Nostalgic memories can trigger a release “of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and other neurochemicals that make us feel good,” adds Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern.
“Holding onto certain possessions may be a way to activate the recall of emotion,” writes Mary Lamia in Psychology Today.
Then there’s this consideration: Like many in the digital generation, I have spent a great amount of time documenting, sometimes at the expense of experiencing, life. My child is on stage at a performance and I’m behind the camera, or posting about it on Facebook.
I justify my behavior by telling myself that this “off-loading” of memory will allow me to revisit the event later on. But what happens if the digitized memories we spend so much time capturing are destroyed or erased?
The immediate questions about the price of memory, raised in the wake of the Santa Rosa fire, have been kicked down the road a bit. There’s still time to decide what to do with the family photos and my father’s clippings. And by the time we get to that point, the technology may have changed entirely (3D virtual “memory movies,” anyone?).
For now, it’s important not to lose the plot from this unsettling week. The most important take-away: “We found Mom. She’s safe.”
Everything else belongs in the digital “to do” folder.
The writer’s new book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com