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The Memory Keeper

In an age of endless digital images, a father's family photo journals narrow the universe of memories.
Martha Stewart Living, March 2013

By David Neibart

When I was a kid, we had one small box of family photographs. My brothers and I would pull it out all the time, to flip through the pictures of my parents in Honolulu, tan and younger, or of us kids on skis. Those images -- maybe 150 of them -- were burned into our memories and still register in my mind as the official document of our family.

Things are different for me as a father. On my phone alone, I have several camera options. One weekend away often produces more images of our kids than there were snapshots in that box. We never really pore over those digital pictures, though. I think it's because our children -- and most kids today -- are used to being shot from every angle, every day. There is no limit to what's recorded, no single place to look for an indelible record of our lives in pictures.

I don't think I ever consciously made a decision to seek out a more tangible way to document our time together, but about six years ago, I bought a stack of journals and began to fill them not with my innermost thoughts, but with the daily headlines. I'll jot down a funny thing that happens, or something one of my children says. I can't capture everything, so I don't try to -- and I don't pressure myself to write every day. Along with a few words, I tape in photos from my phone printed on regular paper, embracing the fact that they don't have the same level of clarity as they do on-screen.

When I began keeping the notebooks, I thought they would be fun to look back on with a few years' remove. What has surprised me is that looking back two weeks is just as satisfying. Having the journals has shown me just how much we forget, even when it's so easy to capture almost everything with our cameras.

In a fire, the journals would be the first (and perhaps only) nonliving thing I would grab on the way out the door. I keep them on our bookshelf, in random order, and within reach of the kids so they can pull them down and flip through. Whenever they do, I think of that little box of family pictures and am reminded of just how valuable the simple act of putting something down on paper can be.

Page by Page
David Neibart creates his memory journals in 2 1/2-by-4-inch hardcover notebooks with lined paper.