To dip into old photos is to open a door. Like Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, who kept coming unstuck in time, you can't help getting drifty.

To dip into old photos is to open a door. Like Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, who kept coming unstuck in time, you can't help getting drifty.

I find myself trying to enter the movie of the life of the person in the picture. Comedy or tragedy? They say comedy is tragedy that ends too soon. They also say that comedy is tragedy plus time. Who can tell?

The addition of some shelves in the family room has led to a mass cleaning-out of boxes from the garage. Books long boxed up go on the shelves, obviously. But what about boxes of old photos?

My wife and I have the usual childhood photos, relatives going back to the dimly remembered and beyond, to mysterious ancestors in fading black and white. Here is testimony to our two decades together: good times and tough ones, friends and family, working and playing, Christmases and vacations, houses and cars, kids now grown and pets long gone, the stuff of two lives.

Here we are building a pond in the back yard, planting gardens, my wife stuffing into the back of a little car all the stuff I declared would never fit. Here is my wife's grandfather laughing as Grandma Vera, at 90, samples a Margarita. Here is my daughter in cap and gown at her college graduation in Eugene, about to leave Oregon, maybe for good.

It is also my lot to have my mother's photos, at least until I can persuade my brother to visit and take half. This is a big deal. My mother, Addie, was a world-class snapshot artist. I give up schlepping boxes one-by-one and just cart them in on a dolly. Most of the photos are in albums, two or three file cabinets worth.

I flip through pages. Here I am a college kid trying a bit too hard to project insouciance. Here I am 5 years old, dressed as a cowboy, playing with my brother and kids I can suddenly remember.

Here's my Grandfather Churchill as a boy dressed in a sailor suit. Flip. Here are people from a time when adults dressed like adults, long sleeves and hats, on the water in a wooden rowboat from the 1920s, a dapper fellow — my grandfather?— rowing. Flip. Me in diapers on a chaise lounge with a nautical design, ship's ropes encircling a sloop with her sails bellied out. Did I think my love of sailing was born in a vacuum?

My Mother's albums tend to be neatly labelled and organized, childhood ones according to family and friends, later ones often shaped by geography: Minnesota, Chicago, Brooklyn, London, Paris, the Low Countries, Panama, Maine, California. Here are mugshots of the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, endless cathedrals, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the beaches and back yards and patios of Orange County, Calif., in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s.

The places blur together, but the people jump off the pages. A face invites you to plumb the mysteries of the heart, while buildings and mountains and flowers have all the emotional resonance of postcards.

I get ruthless. A cathedral with no loved ones? The discard pile. Big Ben? The pigeons of St. Peter's Square? Stray cats in Venice? Outtahere. A box fills to overflowing with redundant cathedrals, generic street scenes.

The next step, I read about somewhere. It's a reversal of what people used to do. Take the pix out of the albums and put them in boxes. Badda bing, badda boom. You want to time travel, you grab a box. Label them if you wish. Eight boxes of photos render down to one or two in an afternoon. Some day they will be digital. For now they are more manageable.

All these stories, all this life. Comedy, tragedy, melodrama. Another way of looking at comedy is that it is tragedy that fails to elicit sympathy. Tragedy is when I cut myself shaving, comedy is when you fall off the roof. I don't know. But as the stories fade, the pictures become the things we carry into the future.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.