Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be JPEGS; The Lara Carlson Story

WORDS Marla Cantrell
IMAGES courtesy Lara Carlson

Dec 1, 2023 | Featured, People

By the time Lara Carlson was eight years old, she was a member of the Chambers 4-H Club in Alma, Arkansas. Lara’s family lived on a horse and cattle ranch just north of town, and she had an affinity for horses. She credits 4-H for her ease in public speaking, her talent for photography, her precision in keeping detailed records. These skills would come into play much later when Lara developed a love of scrapbooking. “I learned a lot in 4-H, first at Chambers and then at New Horizons 4-H. Even giving speeches and knowing what you’re going to say before you get up before a crowd helped. I thought of that when I spoke to a group of about a hundred people in Texas about scrapbooking years later.”

In high school, she met her future husband, Chester Carlson. He was a teen pilot and had an air of adventure about him. The two were young, eighteen and nineteen when they married, but they didn’t want to wait. The whole world was just outside their door, and they were prepared to conquer it. “We knew we wanted to grow and change together,” Lara said.

For a while, it was Lara’s dream to become a physician. She applied for medical school, but the timing wasn’t right. Much later, when their youngest of three was in kindergarten, her husband decided to give it a try. By then, the couple had been through enough to make medical school seem less daunting. At eighteen years of age, Chester had joined the Air National Guard, risen to officer status, and in the years that followed, had done everything from piloting to serving in the security detail for the Space Shuttle during the tense period after 9/11.

Dr. Chester Carlson now works in the private sector, in Emergency Medicine. After years of traveling with the military, the couple returned to Alma to raise their family. When their daughter was in kindergarten, and their oldest of two sons was one year old, Lara met a woman who would write the next chapter of her life. “Miss Marilyn was our neighbor, and she scrapbooked. She invited me to learn, and I really enjoyed it,” Lara said.

Scrapbooking reminded Lara of those records she kept in 4-H. There were always notes attached, there were always photographs to support her narrative. As a young mom, she wondered if she’d retain all the precious things her children said, all the tiny moments that made their family theirs. “You think you’ll always remember, but you won’t,” Lara said. “Every day you’re living is a story. It’s hard to capture it all.”

That didn’t stop Lara from trying. She collected the details of the day and turned them into scrapbooks—part journal, part photo album. Every year of her family’s life is recorded. Every vacation and special occasion. Today, she says her home library contains an encyclopedia of the Carlson family, a chronology of their life together. “My daughter will ask what year it was when she learned to do a certain thing, and I can pull the books from the shelf until we find it. My husband and I are big John Mayer fans. We were wondering when we first saw him in concert, and I looked it up.”  It was twenty years ago, and Lara has the record to prove it.

Somewhere between the third and fifth grades, each of the Carlson children studied foreign countries they wanted to visit and helped plan a trip there. As the family traveled, that child would work on their own scrapbook, with notes and photos and souvenirs like tickets or train schedules. Those trips turned out to be interactive learning experiences. Now that they’re grown, they can go to the family library, grab their scrapbook, and read their childhood thoughts and impressions, written in their own hand, complete with their comments on gelato in Italy. Complete with their adorable misspellings and sweet thoughts.

One of their children’s notes from Cambridge, England, reads: We took a day trip to Cambridge University where famous scientists went to school. The photo on the following page shows the Carlsons’ son beneath a sign for St. Andrew the Great, a Church of England parish church. Still another page reads: We took a night train from Paris to Chamonix to go to Mt. Blanc. It’s over 15,000 ft. high!

It’s no wonder there are so many scrapbooks in Lara’s library. With three kids, the oldest of whom is thirty-two, and an active lifestyle, she had a lot of material to work with. Chester taught all their children to fly, and he now owns a plane with one of his flying buddies. The Carlsons have backpacked through Europe. They scuba dive, and Chester and Lara are now learning to sail. But the most adventurous trip they’ve taken was when their oldest son married. “We went on a family honeymoon,” Lara said and laughed. The whole family traveled to Paris, Florence, Rome. Then everyone but the bride and groom came home. The newlyweds traveled on to Athens for five more days. The trip was so successful Lara expects they’ll try it again when the couple hits one of their big anniversaries.

You might think Lara’s scrapbooking days are winding down, but she’s just getting started. She has two grandbabies now, and documenting their little lives has just begun. For a family reunion, Lara helped make scrapbooks for their mother and her nine siblings, who grew up in North Dakota. There were photos of them as children, as young adults, and of them today. In the books were birthdates and locations of the extended family so everyone could keep up.

When Lara and Chester reached their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, the kids threw a party. They invited old friends and family and had everyone write something to the couple. Those are now in a scrapbook with each of the letter writers’ pictures from the event.

Since scrapbooking played such a big role in her family, it’s not surprising that Lara now works with Creative Memories, a scrapbooking company with offices in Minnesota, Japan, and Australia. The company operates a little like the home business Pampered Chef, except with Creative Memories, you also get to create scrapbooks at some of their events. All kinds of people show up. Some want to make a scrapbook of their religious faith journey. Some want to put together a book of family genealogy. Some create books featuring their furry family members.

As young parents, so much is going on. Days are filled with firsts. Even a baby’s grin will change from day to day. Capturing those images in book form does something exceptional in the years to come. You look back and feel all those feelings again, this time without the rush and bustle of your earlier life. Taking cellphone photos doesn’t matter if those images are lost when you get a new phone or your device crashes. And even if they’re not lost, they exist only in the ether. As Lara said, “Don’t let your babies grow up to be JPEGS.”

Scrapbooking is wonderful for families, and the people who share the hobby can enrich your life. Miss Marilyn, who started Lara on this venture, has become one of her best friends. And not just a friend. She helps Lara with her classes and retreats. The two women are as close as family. How did it happen? Scrapbooking did that for them.

Free Crop Beginner’s class. Preregister to receive a free Make and Take Project. Bring a friend and receive an extra gift!
December 1: 10a-1p
December 7: 2p-4p
Awaken Coffee
4510 North Highway 71
Alma, Arkansas

To be announced! Email Lara for details.

Spring Scrapbook Retreat with Heart and Hand Memory Makers
March 15-17
Lost Trails Ranch, Mulberry, Arkansas (15 minutes northeast of Alma)

For more information or to preregister for events, contact Lara at

Do South Magazine

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