For a few months after my mother’s death, I found myself swimming in old photographs. After spending hours each day sorting them on the dining room table of my late parent’s apartment, I finally brought shopping bags of photos home and finished sorting them in a less fraught environment. This is not to say that it became an easy task. It just became less difficult. I now have a series of neat boxes to cull through again at another time. I’ve also sent several boxes and oversized envelopes to relatives.
Old photos are poignant storytellers. Some are mysteries: Was Grandpa really that short? What is the name of the little boy climbing the tree in our yard? Is that my Dad’s college girlfriend? Were those extraordinary party photographs really taken by Dad’s friend the famous photographer? Who are the people at a conference with Mom? What was I thinking when I wore that awful blouse?
Others are sweet. There are a few of me “reading” to my younger sister when we were both toddlers. I’m betting I was making up the story as I turned the pages, or riffing on one of the stories our dad read to us at bedtime. I’m very fond of photos of me as a little girl with one of my much older cousins. She obviously enjoyed spending time with me and I idolized her. There are photos of me as a small child with my mom, my mom as a child with her mom, and my cousin (on that side of the family) as a child with her mother. Those photos scream family resemblance and the dominant genes of curly hair.
Photographs spark stories and story ideas. A few months ago I read an intriguing novel entitled ‘The Photograph’ by Penelope Lively. The premise is a widower’s quest to learn the truth about his late wife that is sparked by discovering a photograph that shows her surreptitiously holding hands with her brother-in-law. This evidence of an illicit relationship leads him on a wild goose chase to discover the many missing pieces of his “picture” of her. Did he know her? Did he know his own wife? He certainly didn’t know her as well as he thought before he saw the photograph.
When I look at family photographs taken long before I was born, featuring people I can no longer call, I find myself craving the stories the explain the images, and I have to make due with the stories I create in the absence of concrete information.
Is this the start of good fiction? Yes!
Family photos from the 1930s…