Monday, July 5, 2010

Three Boxes of Stories

by Joan

Last week we spent a week in Maryland with my family. One of the highlights of the week was a whirlwind Sunday where we hosted a family brunch and then dinner for friends we don’t see often enough.

For the morning shift, I dug out three boxes of old family photographs. As we munched on bagels, quiche, and Costco granola (we swear it’s laced with crack), I sat next to one of my cousins, whose mind holds three generations of our family tree. With a pencil I jotted the names of great grandparents, aunts and uncles on the back of thick sepia photos, some so old the corners had disintegrated. Many remained unmarked as we debated to which side of the family the stern-faced, bustled ladies belonged.

Maybe one of the men is the artist of the Falmouth sailboat watercolor hanging above my desk and between the pages of the CEMETERY GARDEN. Maybe the guy with the beard is Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky. (Actually, he’s my paternal great-grandfather Zachary Levinson!)

In some faces we saw the shape of my face and eyes. In others we saw three generations of full lips and wavy hair. We’re fairly sure a few pictures were shot in Russia, before our relatives journeyed to Ellis Island. Others were taken in Brooklyn studios. Still others captured their daily life: three familiar faces posing proprietarily in front of a grocery/delicatessen, others in a confectionery, a young married couple standing tenuously side-by-side, my father (as a child) demurely atop a horse.

How will we ever identify those faces shamefully abandoned in the past, like elementary school friends who once pricked fingers and blended blood? Will our great-grandchildren forget us in the same way?

It got me thinking about the layers of our lives, how our ancestors’ actions and decisions affected not only our looks, but where and who we are now. Had they stayed in Russia, they might have lived in an isolated frozen community or been arrested and sent to Siberia. Maybe I wouldn’t be here now. Maybe I’d work in a government job and walk to work in knee-high boots and a parka. I wish my ancestors had written some of it down, like Kim’s great-grandmother. I have bags of WWII letters from my father, but nothing from the previous generation.

Is that why we write? So years from now, a descendant will find our words and understand us a little more clearly? When we write, we capture a mood or a setting in much the same way a photograph does. With just the right shading and lightening, cropping the boring parts. Posing our characters on a backdrop of plot.

Seeing these pictures also got my creative mind lassoing ideas for a future novel. Like Julie, I need to finish my WIP first, but I’m already excited about where these pictures will lead me. I’ve got about 500 more treasures to scan and, with that, a lifetime of stories to tell.

What about you? Have you found crumbling family photos? Do you know who they are?


  1. Hi, Jan - yes, I have been trying to assemble my family from old photos, letters etc. I actually found a whole side of my Father's that no one knew about. Apparently a family rift back in the 1920's. Lots of stories, and I hope you have luck writing them. It is a lifetime of work.

    150 Mile House, B.C. Canada

  2. We just did this with my granddad not too long ago. He was frustrated that he didn't remember everyone. It's an interesting exercise no matter what. I hope I'm keeping enough of a history for my kids. I sure have a nice stack of really embarrassing photos.

  3. It's interesting that my mom recalled many of the names, yet she didn't remember that I'd visited her the day before. Memory is a strange thing. Embarrassing photos are the only answer!

  4. Suzie--blogger must have dropped my earlier comment to you! I think your 1920 family rift would be great fodder for a story!

  5. We have boxes upon boxes of old photographs. Most are unlabeled and those that are labeled tend to be wrong (Ernstina is labeled "Christina" and such). We cannot help but laugh at their attire and facial expressions. However, it always causes us to question if future generations will make the same remarks about our wardrobe, expressions, and naivete.

    <>< Katie

  6. Katie, I'm sure future generations will get plenty of laughs at our expense. Think 80s leggings! Thanks for stopping by!

  7. As you know, I have many old photographs, particularly from Carl and Madonna's time (the protagonists of my W.I.P.)

    It's so much fun to go through them and compare features. I see a lot of my grandmother in Ashlyn, for example, and my Dad's looking more and more like Carl as he ages.


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