I recently came across a envelope full of old photos of my mom when she was a child. A relative had sent them to me after she passed away, and I guess I was not ready to look at them at the time. Now I see in the photos a beautiful child posing in front of a quaint south Boston brownstone, alongside relatives or friends whose faces I do not recognize. I remember my Irish family members as so much older than the folks pictured there. They were all characters who loved to sip whiskey and sing songs of the old country, but you would never know that looking at their stern, stiff expressions in the photos. I wonder what they were doing and saying just before the photos were taken, and I wish their names were listed on the backs. It would help me distinguish between my endless relatives named Mary.
One Mary was nicknamed “Mary Upstairs,” because she lived on the second floor of a brownstone. You may be able to guess which street the one named “Mary K Street” lived on. Then there was the Mary that my grandpa always referred to as “Mary Piano Legs.” I inspect the photos again, but I am not sure what piano legs look like on a person.
I see endless ads on television now for companies that help trace one’s ancestry, right down to DNA analysis to pinpoint exact villages of origin. The popularity of these companies seems to have coincided with cell phones serving as our cameras. We might post the output on Facebook and Instagram, but how many people actually take the time these days to print out their cellphone photos and put them into albums to be treasured and passed down the generations? It seems like an outdated activity, but flipping through family photo albums with older relatives is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. And when we have a senior here at Live Oak Adult Day Services who has dementia and is anxious or wandering, we can often calm them by pulling out our center’s albums of photos going back to the 1990s. They love to see Christmas celebrations of yore, visits from children, silly Halloween costumes, and birthday parties galore. We bond over shared memories of such occasions in our own lives.
Do you have old photo albums in your garage or gathering dust on a bookshelf? Pull them out, share them with your family, and put names and descriptions on the back. No one else but you might remember that woman in the back row, or that the house in the picture had a walnut orchard in the back where there is now a freeway. If you have an elderly relative, ask them about older people in the photos—who were they, who was married to that man, where did they come from? You will not need to go so far as to take a DNA sample to find out a lot about your own ancestry this way.
When my son was small we were looking through one of my old photo albums and, as he saw page after page of black-and-white pictures, he quite innocently asked, “Mama, was everything black-and-white” when you were little?” I think that was the day I started dying the gray out of my hair. But I also treasure the memory of his little blonde head bent over pictures of great-grandparents he would never meet and all those people I had adored, and the stories I was able to share with him. The family history lives on in a new generation.
Cheryl Huguenor is the program director at Live Oak Adult Day Services in Gilroy. For more information visit liveoakadultdaycare.org.