MYSTERY RELATIONS: My Fascination With Old Photographs Of Long-Forgotten Family Members -- And Total Strangers As Well

I had a great-grandmother named Lillian Violet. She died 10 years before I was born, and all I know of her personally comes from what little my father remembers. But I have these pictures.
Publish date:
June 30, 2014
family, mysteries, collections, photographs

Twice in the past month, when discussing the ultimate fate of various family items, my father has made offhand comments to me along the lines of, "It’s not like you’re going to be having kids anyway.”

I'm fairly certain these are not meant as passive-aggressive digs of disappointment -- neither of my long-divorced parents has ever expressed sadness or regret at their lack of grandchildren. At least not to me, anyway. I am their only child, and yet I've never experienced the pressure most of my partnered peers have felt from their families to get to baby-havin’ and on the quick (although I have gotten a very small taste of it from my in-laws, who are wonderful people who just happen to really enjoy children, I guess).

I’m grateful for my family's indifference, as I have no desire nor plans for biological reproduction, and even at 37 years old, adoption still seems like a far-off maybe-someday scenario to me. I mean, I struggle with whether I want to commit to the life-changing responsibility of getting a dog. And I actually WANT a dog. I don’t even want a baby. So it’s nice to be able to observe my individual feelings on this without interference from my parents.

Still, though, my father's comments got me thinking about what happens to family things when we go, and there’s no one left to take them. Which is not to say that having people around to take them means that they actually will do so. If you’ve ever had cause to go through an elderly relative’s accumulated effects, you’ll know that there is a point at which everything stops looking like individual objects, laden with meaning, collected over a lifetime, and it starts to just look like a giant pile of... stuff.

You don’t see this blurring into indistinct heaps of things that need to be got rid of just because you’re exhausted and often sad and the work of cleaning out an elderly person’s house is always ten thousand times more difficult than you’d expect -- although this is all very true. You see this blurring because it actually IS just a giant pile of stuff. Some of that stuff you’ll want to keep, as mementos and souvenirs, but most of it -- it’s just stuff.

In antique shops and at auctions, I’m fascinated by the boxes of generations-old photos, letters, and other family relics, ephemera that only bore its true significance to people who are long dead. I always wonder how those photos got there. Did they hold no meaning for whomever was left? Could they just not handle the task of going through it all? Or was there no one left? These documents speak their own stories, each formal portrait and snapshot, the long-ago existence of the people captured an irrefutable fact, but the details of who they were, and what they were like, swaddled in mystery.

I saw my grandmother-in-law agonize over who would take her things -- and all her things had to be taken by family, except when so many had to be taken by strangers who attended the estate sale. I saw my mother take far more of her own mother’s things than she could ever possibly use, and they languished in a storage unit until she could figure out how to part with them.

As my father has made these comments about my lack of offspring, something occurs to me: if I find myself, in my declining years, weighed down with concern over who will get the things in my house when I’m dead, then I will have lived the altogether wrong kind of life for me. I don't want to worry about what happens after I'm dead; I worry about enough things that are beyond my control already.

And honestly, I love the idea of whatever I own that isn’t from IKEA -- the actual antiques I mean, the stuff that is interesting -- winding up in an auction or a junk shop, like water that rains into a lake to evaporate back into the atmosphere and fall as rain again. In death, my stuff will MAKE IT RAIN, and some other lake will get my highly collectible water.

Still, I don’t know that I believe in an inevitable family legacy, even when everyone has kids like they are expected to do. Not all families are intrinsically bonded. Some kids stop talking to their parents; some parents stop talking to their kids. And in the best of circumstances, where people do stay relatively close, there are often just as many mysteries.

I have a lot of old family photographs, going back as far as the Civil War in a few cases, but mostly concentrated around the late 1800s and early 1900s. I am also a bit of a genealogy nerd, so I have a considerable amount of knowledge on the spreading branches of my family tree. And still, I have a stunning number of photos of people that I am clearly related to, but I have no idea who they are.

Even the ones I do know, my understanding of the people they were is limited.

I had a great-grandmother named Lillian Violet. She died 10 years before I was born, and all I know of her personally comes from what little my father remembers -- and he was only 17 himself when she passed. But I have these pictures.

That last one, sadly, is pretty damaged -- but I assure you that there on the right? That's my great-grandmother's bent-over butt.

I have later pictures of Lillian as well -- she was married in 1925, and had the first of two children the following year. The elder of her sons, my grandfather, was plagued with chronic health issues virtually from birth, and between his illnesses and the stock market crash of 1929, you can watch her photographed expression change to something more somber and serious. By midlife, she usually appears very reserved, and there are only a few photographs, mostly late in her life, in which she is again attempting a smile.

Even knowing what I do, she is a mystery to me. Her mother, Theresa, was one of six sisters, and they are all more mysterious still. Only one of these great great grand aunts -- Hermina -- had any children; one was married without kids (she and her husband traveled extensively, in what I like to think of as an alternate reality version of the beginning of “Up”) and three never married at all, living together as spinsters their whole life. At least, that's what census records would suggest.

I can find this much from public records -- where they lived, who they lived with -- but I know nothing of what they were like as individuals. And these are people I am related to by blood. If they were simply names on paper, I might feel less of a hunger about it, but because I have these pictures, not knowing who they were is almost unbearable.

And yet, it’s also inevitable. There is no immortality, no matter how far back you can trace your lineage. No one lives forever because it is human nature to eventually forget.

That’s not really a tragedy, I have to remind myself. Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll be a mysterious remnant staring up from a box of ephemera, not unlike the stacks of photos of long-dead strangers I so often comb through in stalls of antiques and assorted junk. I even buy and collect some of these photos (I’m particularly fond of pre-1900 photos of people wearing eyeglasses) because the mystery is just as appealing as the certain truth. If I knew the stark reality of those peoples’ lives, they’d interest me less. As it is, they engage my imagination, and I think I might prefer my idle wonderings to having nothing left to wonder about.