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Crop Circles

There's an art in turning scraps into memories.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing, Cheryl Bailey thinks, is that phones are ringing all over the hotel, but none of the calls are for her. In the three resort kitchens, dishes are piling up, but they're not her mess. She's so far from that workaday life -- the one in which you do what needs to be done -- and so focused on this, her real life, that she's keeping body and soul together by snagging the occasional Jolly Rancher from one of the plates placed strategically around the room.

"People are in their own worlds here," Cheryl says, clearly in hers. "Completely absorbed, but still sharing."

All around Cheryl's chair, as well as underneath it, are the tools of her trade: folders and envelopes containing every possible shade of paper, scissors that cut in various decorative edges, hundreds of novelty stickers, pigment pens reputed never to fade and, of course, a wealth of snapshots. The women around her are similarly supplied, their baskets crammed with the crafty overflow associated with the hobby known as scrapbooking.

Labor of love: Creative Memories consultant Debra Bryson (below) is on the cutting edge of scrapbooking.
James Bludworth
Labor of love: Creative Memories consultant Debra Bryson (below) is on the cutting edge of scrapbooking.
James Bludworth

Scrapbooking is why you come to a Crop Retreat Weekend sponsored by Creative Memories, the direct-marketing company responsible for the resurgence of this age-old fad. Here the women can share not just their single-minded fascination with photo albums, but with the "safe" preservation of family artifacts. All of them have inherited color prints from the Sixties that faded over time, yellowing black-and-whites from the Forties, "magnetic albums" that distorted or destroyed the prints within. No more! This acid-free paper and those plastic page protectors will make their work last long after the next millennium has come and gone.

At 2 p.m. on this Saturday afternoon in November, Cheryl and her sixty retreat-mates have already been sitting at one of six thirty-foot-long tables, pasting, trimming and otherwise arranging photographs, for nearly 24 hours, having slept only when absolutely necessary. They have come here as their ancestors might have gone to a quilting bee -- eager to bond with other like-minded women, yet delighted to be left alone. Some of them are here for the fifth year in a row.

There is plenty of work to do. The role of the family historian has become more complicated since these women were young girls. For one thing, a lot more pictures are being taken -- and made into duplicates -- and a lot fewer hours are available in which to archive them. Most of the room's dedicated "croppers" were once completely negligent, piling up snapshots in a shoebox, which is bad, or slapping them into a "sticky album," which is worse. But then they discovered Creative Memories and began producing the elaborately organized and decorated albums that are the company's trademark.

Imagine a photograph, circa 1961. Imagine that it shows the Brendan family -- husband, wife, kids and a friend -- on the beach. And say this photo's been sitting in someone's desk drawer for nearly forty years. If a Creative Memories acolyte were to acquire this photograph, she might put it through the following transformation:

Crop the original photo -- provided it isn't so old as to be considered "antique" or "heritage" -- into an oval shape, using Creative Memories' official oval-cutting system, a technological marvel three years in R&D and light years better than competitors' knockoffs, which you can buy at any hobby store. (But don't.)

Mount it on a piece of brightly colored acid-free paper that you've trimmed with deckle-edged decorative scissors, and mount this whole assembly onto an album page.

Use Creative Memories stencils to produce a cut-out paper headline. Or use one of the pre-written sentiments your Creative Memories consultant might suggest, such as FUN IN THE SUN!

Add a smattering of beach-theme stickers, perhaps striped umbrellas, pails, snorkels and a car with tail fins -- available from you-know-who -- to give that early-Sixties feel.

Using a wave-shaped template ruler, draw in a row of waves with your pigment pen.

Journal along the lines of the wave. (At Creative Memories, "to journal" is a verb.) Don't get hung up on perfect writing or penmanship, although spelling and legibility are a plus. Write whatever you remember, or may have been told, about the scene. "Grandma Brendan always wore those funny rubber bathing caps," you might say. "But what a figure! Uncle Seamus, age 5, already holds his first baseball mitt, and something tells me Grandpa's business partner Roy Berkowitz (top left) is about to treat everyone to a cold pop."

Cover the whole thing with a plastic page protector.

Relax! You have just preserved your family heritage and expressed your creativity. More important, you quit talking about someday doing something with all those old photos long enough to actually do it. Not for nothing is this the official Creative Memories motto: "We're the ones who help you get it done."

As she talks, Cheryl puts the finishing touches on "Annual Trip to the Zoo," a page featuring a single photograph and stickers of lions, zebras and handmade paper boulders that she hopes will suggest an outing in the natural world.

"I'd always had a little memory album," Cheryl explains, "and it turns out there was a Wednesday crop where I work." (That's Pulte Mortgage Company, which she immortalized on a page titled "Pulte Mortgage Finds a New Home!") "My daughter, Amanda, was eleven when I started, and she started a book, too. If you look at her book, you can see that she was barely able to spell when she started. She'd put in a picture of herself doing ballet and call it 'BATTLE.'"

Luckily, incorrect spelling never stifled Amanda's creativity. The earlier pages of her book are full of "Born to dance!" "Way to go girl!" "It's great to be eleven!" and "What a great kid!" But Creative Memories consultants teach their clients to weed mercilessly, picking out only a few snapshots to capture a moment or event -- and so, in a very few pages, Amanda is a sixteen-year-old with long legs and a huge smile dancing not just on pointe, but in "Junior Bass Bumpers!" Now it's her mother who carefully writes in the words "What a great kid!"

"She's an only child," Cheryl says. "Can you tell?"


Three years ago Heidi Everett, a writer who'd lived in St. Cloud, Minnesota, all her life, answered a help-wanted ad by correcting the ad's spelling and sending it back with a resumé. She ended up getting the communications job. The company turned out to be Creative Memories.

"At the time, I thought, 'Oh, my God, an endless Tupperware party,'" she recalls, "but now I love it. I'm a cropper, too. I go pick up my pictures and throw the bad ones away before I even leave the store. And that's what's cool -- we have room for the Martha Stewart wannabes, but also for the domestically challenged, like me."

In fact, she says, the two women who started the business in 1987 were a little of both. "Rhonda Anderson was a homemaker in Billings, Montana, and her mother had always made scrapbooks, and she was teaching her neighbors how to do it the way her mother did. The other, Cheryl Lightle, lived here in St. Cloud, and she was the vice-president of marketing for a photo-album company that had gone bankrupt."

It was Lightle's job to offload a warehouse full of the photo albums that remained. For lack of a better plan, she started calling customers from long ago, asking if they might want to purchase a few albums before the company went out of business for good. When she reached Rhonda Anderson, she hit pay dirt. Anderson, who had inspired a local scrapbooking craze, thought she could use about forty albums, maybe more. Lightle invited her to fly out to Minnesota to discuss a marketing proposition, and Creative Memories was born.

"They made it a direct-sales program," Heidi explains. "Our consultants go into homes and share the message of memory preservation. Making a Back-to-School page, for instance, and longer sessions where everyone comes and works on their pages together. They're known as Crop-Till-You-Drops."

In the process, consultants make money by charging class fees, most of which run around ten dollars, and by selling the art supplies provided to them wholesale by headquarters in St. Cloud. The more serious consultants can rise through the ranks by signing up consultants of their own, à la Amway. "But our distribution teams go only three lines deep," Heidi quickly adds, "so it never really becomes a pyramid thing. We're reputable and good."

And popular. Three years ago, Creative Memories had 12,000 members. Last month there were more than 59,000, some from as far away as Australia. Denver has been an "extraordinary market," Heidi says, one whose acknowledged Queen of the Crop is Meda Branwell, a housewife turned powerhouse cropping consultant for the past eight years. Meda's now a senior director, with an extensive tier of consultants operating beneath her who kick in a percentage of their earnings. It was Meda who first saw that a six-hour Crop-Till-You-Drop might not be enough and five years ago started the tradition of crop retreats held away from the city, in this case at the Vintage Resort in Winter Park.

"And I have to say, we haven't begun to tap into the wonderful career opportunities," Meda says from the relative quiet of her Vintage Resort suite. "The income can be super. Still, I tell people: If you need to put food on the table or a roof over your head, don't stop doing what you're doing, but start doing this and let the income build. And I have all kinds of career gals thinking of making the change."

Meda's daughters were in their teens and thinking about college when she attended her first Creative Memories event and came away transformed. Having worked as a nurse and a pharmaceutical rep, she was unprepared for the sudden sense of fulfillment. "The women in my ladies' Bible class knew it was me," she recalls, "but I still remember that moment -- it was an a-hah! By doing this, I went to work and saved for college, and I rarely missed out on the important moments of my daughters' lives."

Even as she cropped, consulted and sold. "We start with how to be selective. Throwing out your blurry dark duddies. How to overcome the fear of the white page, how to write headlines. We don't play up the creative part," she says. "Creativity is what paralyzes people. We just want to help you get it done, and people love it. They leave HUGGING their new albums."

But without the guidance a consultant provides, Meda warns, they might not get that far. The knockoff scrapbook stores that have sprung up in the wake of Creative Memories' success offer too many supplies, with no incentives to use those supplies to get pages finished. "As a result," she suggests, "some of the people you'll meet out there in the crop room have 25 pairs of decorative scissors and are paralyzed. How many do you really need? It's not just a craftsy fad thing; it's a women's night out. And it can get serious. I've had more than one woman referred by her therapist -- maybe because she lost a loved one and is finally ready to look at those pictures."

At this retreat, scrapbooks are spread out on a long table so that croppers can peruse each other's work. Subject matter is sometimes predictable -- "A Family Trip to Disney World" -- but sometimes not. The scrapbook everyone is talking about is a two-volume behemoth put together by Littleton's Susie Kochsmeier. Half a collection of news clippings, half a journal of personal memories, it covers the Columbine High School shootings and their aftermath, as seen through the eyes of a Columbine mom living just a few blocks from the school.

"I started saving all the newspapers as I began attending the funerals," Susie says. "I thought I should put them together for my son Kent, who lost five friends there. I didn't write my memories until two months later, but there was nothing I missed. I'm a dot-dot-dot kind of writer..."

Into the scrapbook went...Susie's account of trying to reach her son by cell phone as the death toll mounted...a stencil of a black helicopter under the headline "Rescuers! Thank You!"...musings about the Klebold parents ("Trying to make sense of their son's actions...probably will never be possible")...a dried columbine that bloomed in her yard one month after the killings...

"It's very affecting," says Sherri Carringer, who attended her first crop in 1991. "You realize after a while that bigger subjects are out there. When I started out, I was a computer programmer, just moved here, no kids. I cropped things like our vacations. Like holidays."

A year later, a car accident put both her sister and her brother in comas -- from which her brother eventually woke up, but her sister didn't. "There's a couple of ways cropping tied into that, believe it or not," Sherri says. "My mom made pages for my brother in the hospital. They're not beautiful pictures, but when he first woke up, it was important that he knew who he was. As he recuperated, he saw how hard it is to explain to people that you've been in a coma. It's easier to show them: 'Look where I've been. Look how far I've come.'"

Sherri chose to work on an album for her sister, "and there were months I got very little done because I couldn't face the pictures, but that was okay -- it didn't matter how fast I finished it," she recalls. "By the time I was done, I no longer wanted to program computers. I wanted to help people connect."

In 1995 she signed on with Meda as a consultant. Halfway through the year, she quit her day job to teach cropping full-time. "And that's what mode I'm in now. I have two little kids at home, and my clients are the same. It's the everyday things that matter. That and all the firsts," she adds, opening a scrapbook that documents the first year of a baby's life -- not just with pictures of the First Step and the First Solid Food, but with a long pigment-pen description of the day Mom went into labor. The margins, of course, are full of pink baby bottles, cuddly bears and other it's-a-girl-iana.

"Well," says Sherri, "you get obsessed. And you need to do this, because when we look back on our childhoods, we tend to remember trauma and angst, and I want them to remember that they met Mickey Mouse, too."

A few tables away, sixteen-year-old Lauren Timkovich, attending her third annual crop retreat with her mother, Glenda, is documenting happy times, Creative Memories-style, in an album titled "Lauren's Trip to Chicago." She has just finished affixing tiny black-and-gold fan stickers to the deep-red page that represents Chicago's Chinatown. Across the table, Glenda is trying to wrangle her family's pre-history -- from the turn of the century to the 1940s.

"Our Heinz 57 genealogy and all that," she says cheerfully. "I stole these pictures, actually, from my father. He doesn't care about this stuff, and I do. And yes, I use my own handwriting. It may be crooked, it may be spelled wrong, but it's me."

The Willy Roy Page, she writes, and Dad's car. Dad always said it was a good car if you and your hat could fit into it.And he smoked a pipe and also chewed. He grew tobacco.

"That's nice," says Gina Kozubik, who's been cropping with the Timkoviches for three years. "But for me, this is selfish time. I'm working on 'The Book of Me.' I was a military brat, and my mother has passed away, and we lived so many places I barely remember. My father is 76. I have to figure all this out before he passes away or totally loses it. I don't have much time."

Rummaging through the piles of historic documentation at her feet, Gina pulls out grainy black-and-whites of herself learning to crawl, an envelope with a three-cent stamp that contains her own birth announcement, "and hmm, here I am picking my nose -- guess I won't use that."

"Gina is just beautiful," she reads, from a letter written in her dead mother's handwriting. "And you can't imagine how fat she is!"

"Ha," she laughs. "Prophetic. And here I am with my brother, both of us going to prom. Look at those ridiculous clothes! And this girl! I made him take her -- or no one else would have. My brother's dead now, too. A suicide."

"What do you think?" Glenda asks her. "What if you had to decide your one favorite cropping tool? What would it be? Your corner-rounder? Your heart-shaped hole punch? Scissors?"

"Straight or deckle?" Gina counters. "How could you ever decide?

You don't have to. You can always buy more. Even the sticker collections arrayed along one wall -- 45 cents per sheet -- are painstakingly precise. Get specific. Go with a theme. How about dump trucks? Blow dryers? Penguins? Saxophones? Your consultant has it, or can find it. Uninspired? Check out the twice-daily crop talks. Look through someone else's album for ideas. And pay attention, because you never know when, smack in the middle of a run-of-the-mill diary of one woman's trip to England, you'll find a sentence like this:

"Chris and I shared an Orange Sunset smoothie, and then he took off my sock and shoe, and kissed my foot."

Or, half an album later, a two-page spread titled BUNS OVER BRITAIN!


As the second crop talk of the day begins -- HEADLINES! -- Debra Bryson sits alone in a room down the hall that serves as a Creative Memories store, selling starter packs, albums and specialty supplies such as the "ethnic" and "Judaic" stencil and sticker sets.

"I'm a plain-vanilla consultant, nothing more," Debra announces. "My neighbor's wife was a consultant, and I said no to her for six months. My thought was: A photo album is a photo album."

That changed with Debra's first pregnancy. "It was my only pregnancy," she corrects, "and I knew that -- it had been extremely difficult to conceive. I had all the cards of congratulations, the printout of her heart rate. I decided to do something special for her. Also, I work as a product manager for a big corporation, and I knew there was nothing I could do to include my daughter in that. So I decided to do this. There's no right or wrong -- it's stickers and glue, and kids love that."

Soon after the birth, Debra became a consultant. As a result, her daughter has never known a non-cropping life. Now four years old, she takes her camera to Montessori school every day, where she is permitted to take five pictures.

"And, of course, she has her own album, and she's in all my albums," Debra says. "Well, most of them. There's another thing I do, for myself. I quilt with paper, the old quilt patterns of the underground railroad. I know I won't ever have time to sew the quilts my great-aunts used to make, not with a child in the house. But I love putting the strips of color together, and where does it say I can't?"

On top of the strips of color, some of them five layers deep, Debra has begun to write. At first she wrote poems from a deeply religious perspective. Sometimes, after a hard day at work, she gets philosophical:

Life is a present

Be present to receive it.

More often, she writes a down-to-earth account of exactly what happened in a photograph. The children never made it to the bedroom. Here they are asleep on the rug. Or, Grandma came to visit.

But it's better to be even more specific. "I tell all my clients to journal the important stuff. Who are these people, and what, exactly, are they doing? It's one thing to write This is grandma. It's quite another to say This is grandma and she put all this stuff in her hair and it smelled AWFUL. Write down the inappropriate things she always said," Debra advises. "The inappropriate and wonderful things. It's your book. You can do what you want."

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