I recently spent two whole Saturdays going through old photographs with my mother. She wanted some help getting things organized and labeled, so we decided that would be our winter project and we poured over old albums and tried to note who was who, and when and where some photos may have been taken. That’s not so hard when it comes to pictures of my siblings and me, or her siblings. But some of the really old photographs contain faces that were unrecognizable to her – some from her family and some from my father’s family. Mom is in her mid-80’s and is still very sharp, so there are lots of things she recalls and lots of people she remembers. In fact, I was very pleased that she was able to name most of the people in the pictures, even from my father’s side of the family.
Then there were some that she just couldn’t place. With my father long gone and his only sibling now passed away as well, it is possible that we may never be able to put a name with a particular face any longer. Even on my mother’s side of the family, there are images of people that she did not recognize. Maybe that doesn’t make a difference to us now, several generations removed, but it does cause one to reflect. Who were these people? They were important enough to make their way into family albums, but were they family? Were they friends?
My father’s parents both died when I was just a kid. One of my grandmother’s sisters lived a little longer, and I remember her very well. She was a round woman with a sweet smile, a friendly disposition, and a raucous sense of humor. She loved to laugh! In her later years she told stories about the old days, played bingo, and made silver-dollar sized pancakes for her great-nieces and nephew. Never having had children of her own, she doted on my dad and his sister when they were children. Two of the albums my mother possesses were created entirely by this fun-loving great aunt who was a larger-than-life character in my youth. Each page reflects her sense of connectedness to her husband, her sisters and their husbands, her brother and his wife, and her parents.
Aunt Thyra saved pictures of much-loved pets with names like “Pal” and “Fluffy.” She had photos of houses where she and her husband lived in Buffalo and New Jersey, humorously labeled “the estate of…” There are pictures of the town where she grew up and I was born: views of the rolling hills and valleys, neighborhoods, and businesses. There are images of her, with a Gibson girl hairstyle and Edwardian clothing that was so popular in the very early 1900’s.
There is one picture that we simply cannot place at all. It appears to have been taken in the 1800’s on a farmstead that does not look at all familiar. My mother believes it was taken in Denmark, where my grandmother’s people came from before they immigrated to America. We do not know who these people were, but they were obviously important to my great aunt. She pasted their photograph into her book, along with so many other pictures of family. I can only assume that they belong somewhere on the family tree. The names are gone. Only the imprint of the faces remains.
The time was definitely well-spent. Just to be able to spend those hours with my mother was important to both of us. She clearly enjoyed the walk down memory lane, and felt good about the progress we made labeling and organizing.
I brought a number of old albums home, and am now in the process of scanning in dozens of old photographs, especially the ones that have already started to deteriorate. Photo paper was not as good then as it is now, and some pictures from the 1920’s and earlier may not last forever, plus the books they were lovingly glued into so long ago are now brittle with age. So my next job is digitizing and cataloging these precious remnants of our family history. I’ll try to fill in some of the empty branches on the family tree as I go, trying to preserve as much as possible for my own children and nieces and nephews, so that when they want to put a face with a name they just may be able to do it.