Crop Circles

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.

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."
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    Robin Chotzinoff
    Contact: Robin Chotzinoff