QC Blog: The Shadow of your Smile

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Shadow of your Smile

If you noticed the comments to the last blog entry, my friend mentioned that the phrase "each one of our ancestors on our tongues" in the inaugural poem is how she sees me. She explained "I think that you are very tied to your ancestors...and they are near your 'surface.' In your everyday life you think about, and search, and do things your ancestors have done.....I do not think that is "Noise" to you, and if it is, it's a good noise that keeps you grounded in family." How ironic that she would say that, considering what I wanted to write about today.

I've spent the last few months, with my son Zack's help, scanning photos from the 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's (almost done). We started on this project so that everyone in the family could have a copy of my grandmother's photos, even though there aren't a ton of them. I took the opportunity to ask around for more photos from other relatives. I had photos from 6 different sources, my grandmother, my great-aunt, my mom, 2 of her sisters, and then my dad's photo albums.

I've sat with my grandmother and my mother looking at most of these photos, having them tell me who they are. I've looked at the photos in my dad's photo album, absorbing and analyzing them, and he had the insight to label most of his photos. For the most part, I've lived these pictures over and over again, so identifying them wasn't expected to be hard, just time consuming.

The six folders of photos had several that crossed over, and one aunt would label it one way, and the other aunt another. Sometimes the back of the photos said something else. I wanted to start teaching Zack who some of these people are (it seems so obvious to me). Except for the fact that he kept labeling everyone who was young as Nanny (his grandmother), we finally got into a rhythm. We used labels in one folder to help us in another folder. We soon realized that there were two or three parties scattered over the photos, with different photos in the folders. Zack started using clothes to help identify people in certain photos, which was very perceptive.

Then I lost my helper because he had to go back to school in January, so I continued. I came across one photo of kids that I sent to my "genealogy cousin" (because his dad and mom were at this party) and it turns out they were his brothers and sisters. The party pictures were taken by my dad (most of the 40's-50's photos are after he came on the scene), so I've seen them before. He would take group photos of the adults in the family, one of the brothers and sisters, one of the kids. Does this sound familiar to anyone who knows me? Then I came across a picture with my dad and one of my aunts in it, and several people I wasn't sure of. I identified some from other labels, and kept thinking it over, trying to puzzle out why those people would be in a photo together. A day later, it hit me - it was an "outlaw" photo, and that narrowed down the choices of who the others were in the picture.

My mother has two brothers who are identical twins. We just kept labeling those as "twins" because as babies, who can tell? That's where my dad's photo albums came in. Meticulous to a fault, my dad labeled the photos of the twins in almost every circumstance. I am so thankful he had the foresight to label those baby photos of the twins, or none of us would have had a clue.

I used my genealogy file to cross reference ages with people in the photos or cars in the photo to determine a year for the picture. While I was doing this labeling, I signed on and was using a free trial to Ancestry.com. I've done genealogy research before, but now that the census reports are online, it's so much easier to find someone. I worked all day last Saturday online doing census research that would have taken weeks to do at the library on microfiche. Happily, my relatives are pretty reliably in Pittsburgh, and not too hard to find. There are a few stragglers though, that I'm having a hard time with. You can get so caught up in cross referencing this person with that person, and knowing when they married, and what happened in their lives so would they still be in Pittsburgh in 1920? My head was spinning when I went to bed at 4:00am that night. I dreamt of being in a maze of streets with different names and trying to find cross streets and where they intersected one another. I love to see names that have descended through the generations, and reflect on how much of a wonder it is that we ended up here at all. In a family, sometimes, only one child survived and that happens to be our ancestor.

So then, I'm back to the photos, reviewing them, and I start getting lost in their faces. I see my aunt's face in her children and grandchildren. I see my other aunt in her youngest daughter. I look at my cousins and I can tell who they are as a baby because they have the same smile at 51. I get lost in the smiles and marvel that I didn't realize until recently that I have my mother's smile. I look at my great-grandmother and I think maybe I have her smile too. I wonder what it would have been like to travel here as a young person on a boat, that probably took anywhere from 10-14 days to come to America from Ireland and from England. Did they come alone? Did they travel with family? I wonder how they met one another. I sometimes get lost in what their lives were like. My head spins for awhile over things I'll never know the answer to. I have so many questions now that no one can answer, because people who might know aren't here anymore.

Shortly before my 75 year old grandmother went into the hospital back in 1980, she and I sat on her couch for hours looking at some of these photos. She told me who was in the photos, and told me stories about the people in them. She was so thrilled to talk about her life. I know we exhausted each other that day, but I knew I was going back to Maryland (where I was living at the time) that day and she was going into the hospital soon. I wanted to squeeze every moment out of that special day, because it was unlike any other. She told me with enthusiasm about the day she first married her husband and had to keep it a secret. I had to look at her in a totally different way than I ever had before. I suddenly saw the young girl inside her - that person we all are in our mind, no matter how wrinkled our faces get, or how old or infirm we are.

So my lesson for today, is ask the questions. Ask your parents who they are and how they met. Ask them about what they like and what they are interested in. Ask about their parents and who they were and about their grandparents and where they were from. What kinds of jobs did they have and what drove them? What were their personalities like? And then write it down - for your children and your grandchildren. And then write down your own story. Write down every detail you know today, because 10 years from now, that memory will be gone from your brain. Write down every story your parents tell so it will survive them. Most importantly, when they start to talk, LISTEN.

And while you're at it - label those photos.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Very poignant observations and just so true! My mom asked my grandmother/her mother (neither of whom is living) about all the pieces of china or jewelry in her curio cabinet...where & whom she got them from, names, dates, etc. Then she drew pictures next to them so it was absolutely clear. She did this with some family photos as well. She told me to always write names, dates, places on photos, write down the things my kids say as they are growing up, keep a little notebook and write down some thoughts...she had the foresight to do these things for us. It confused me as a child; I cherish it as an adult and understand that she was grounded in this way with many of her 'ancestors on the tip of her tongue.' It's a way of life because it is part of you...doesn't matter when you realize (and start) orienting yourself (or your kids) to this. It's the details of history living on. MJ, did you ever hear 'story core' on NPR (national public radio). You need to go to their website and search on 'story core' or corp (?) to listen to the audio histories being archived nation wide.

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