Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stealing a branch from the family tree

I'll let you in on a secret: I've absconded with the family album. Actually, I borrowed it from my mom a couple of years ago, who had previously borrowed it from her sister, my elderly aunt -- who may very well at this moment be parked in front of the television, unable to focus clearly on the brusque pronouncements emanating from Judge Judy's pursed lips, for wondering where the heck it is. It is a large, red leatherette tome that is embossed in gold, haphazardly bound together with twist-ties from old bread wrappers, and falling apart in a very bad way. I had actually planned to arrange the photos in a new, archival-quality album that would preserve them properly, although I fear that removing them from the vintage sticky-backed, magnetic pages will cause many of the photos to crumble. And so, the album remains squirreled away in a cabinet -- yet another of those innumerable projects I've not yet attended to.

I like to take the precarious album out of hiding from time to time, and gingerly turn its pages. It is filled with photos of my mom's maternal line, and I believe the oldest photo is that of my great-great-great grandfather (if I'm following the succession correctly). He wears a heavily braided, brass-buttoned uniform and reminds me vaguely of Captain Kangaroo (with all due respect to this long-gone grandpa and good ol' Bob Keeshan).

There are numerous photos of my grandmother and her brothers as children. For some reason, these photos intrigue me. Perhaps it is because I only ever knew them as "old folks", seeing them as youngsters and wondering what their lives were really like is a fascinating exercise to me. Even though they came long before I did, in what ways were we alike? If I'd somehow been able to know them in their youth, would we have been friends?

I look at the sepia-toned photos of my great-uncle, Buster. When I was a child, he and my great-grandmother lived for a time next door to my grandparents, and I visited fairly often. I was terrified of Buster. An ex-Navy man, he was rough and gruff, and had battled the bottle which had taken its toll on him in a number of ways. He was a tattooed, leather-skinned curmudgeon with a cauliflower nose whose bark of "Hey, c'mere kid" struck terror in my heart. Yet, he only ever wanted to give me that which all children crave: A bit of spending money. Sometimes it was a quarter. On occasion, it was a whole dollar, and I was rich! I remember tentatively stepping into his darkened room when he beckoned with his scary snarl, only to emerge briefly thereafter with overwhelming relief at not being eaten alive, and even better -- money in my pocket! Looking at his photos now through knowing adult eyes, I see him as he might really have been. Where had his travels taken him? What did he regret most in life? Did he ever fall in love? Obviously, behind his coarse exterior his heart held a soft spot for the little child that I once was.

A small and petty part of me rather revels in the knowledge that I have this album in my possession, and that it isn't presently in the hands of my older cousin, who has always (and rather inexplicably) considered himself some sort of family patriarchal figure -- a self-appointed conductor of family business who would undoubtedly wish to be the keeper of treasured family photos as well. Strangely enough, it only occurred to me very recently that these photos do not just belong to him and what I've long considered to be "his" side of the family. This is my family too. These are my people. I just wish I knew more about them.

Lately I've been considering what a very short time each of us is allotted on this earth. Someday, someone somewhere will open a musty album and gaze upon photos of me as a child. Will they wonder who I really was? Will they contemplate my life? Will I matter?


  1. my dear friend, you have already answered all those question in this post :) glad you're back... missed you :D

  2. Hi Jen,
    I did almost the same thing with my Mother's album. It is so very precious. One album and that's it to honor and commemorate and try to get to know those that came before me, not an easy job. I have been doing family research for over 15 yrs now, its an addiction. Check out my blog: http://onlymyfathersdaughter.blogspot.com

  3. I am the keeper of the family record in my family, I spent over 30 years tracing my roots. I love the old family pics, the oldest one I have is of my great-grandfather, Levi, who outlived two wives and fathered 14 children, my grandpa was one of the youngest. You can insert the pages of these albums into archival sleeves without removing them from the pages. An Archival box is also a good way to store the album. Also scanning them and storing in an online photo site will ensure you will have them in case of fire/loss.

  4. So you're the one in your family - Deb's the one who is always borrowing pictures/albums from Cala! I know what you are talking about thinking how years later my nieces and nephews will be looking at pictures of me and thinking how old I look, how dorky I look, etc.! Then I remember when I was younger, especially looking at pictures of my mother and trying to figure HER out - what she was thinking, if she was actually happy in her short life, just things like that. I SO enjoy reading your blog - I tap in all the time to see what's happening! Thanks for sharing!

  5. My family albums are in the possession of my 3rd sister right now and are in her storage facility. My youngest sister is supposed to have them, but forgot to take them with her when she moved to Oklahoma. We're waiting for Sister B to unearth them from storage and Sister P to scan them so we may have our own copies.

    Yours are lovely and I thank you for sharing them. xxoo

  6. I keep lots of old family photos too! And my guest bath has a "theme" of vintage cameras and photos -- and guests seem to love them!

    Jan at Rosemary Cottage


OK, spill it!