We all have our time machines.
— Jeremy Irons
“Who are these people?”
That’s usually the first thing I ask myself, followed quickly with “What are they doing? ” …. and then, a “When did this happen?”
This interrogatory sequence often follows my review of old family photos.
In recent years they have come my way in boxes and envelopes, some delivered by hand, as their original caretakers have down-sized, moved into senior care or passed away.
As the oldest child of the oldest child of the oldest child … I am apparently designated keeper of the family fame. That, and my newspaper background leads to an overestimated belief that I have some skills in photography and its changing preservation techniques.
That’s why I have a growing number of shoe boxes full of neat old photos, showing neat old people that might or might not be kin.
I used to try to keep these in order, but have not been diligent. The result? Piles of pictures and many, many mysteries.
For example, I have this great picture that shows a small girl standing beside a horse and buggy. In the background is a brick farmhouse that I recognize as the one in which my grandmother and grandfather long lived. It is the house where my father and his brothers were born.
But who is the girl?
Her features are somewhat obscured by a hat and heavy scarf. We think it’s my Great Aunt Katie, who lived to be almost 100. But when once asked, she said she didn’t know. She also added the always frustrating … “You should have asked Sparks.”
Sparks, her oldest brother (named for the doctor who delivered him), was reputed to have a phenomenal memory. They said so at his funeral almost a half century ago, so we can’t ask him now.
Of course, many of the pictures show people I do know. Their familiar faces look into the future and see me, squinting back through time. I just don’t know what they’re up to.
Why is everyone dressed up? Why are they standing around an automobile? Who is the baby they are holding?
You find yourself narrowing dates by clothing styles and car models. The leaves on trees give the hint of the season.
You scan the landscape for clues.
My father once deduced a graduation party in the 1940s by identifying the dog in the corner of the picture.
Sometimes you figure it out.
Sometimes you don’t, and often you realize you never will.
You accept that they are part of your past, you just don’t know what part. Perhaps because they were a modest bunch with much to be modest about.
Nobody got a medal. Nobody made a million. Nobody got in trouble.
We could put that inscription on the family’s collective crypt.
I might add that nobody wrote a date or name on the back of a photo, either.
Reach Bill Kirby at firstname.lastname@example.org.