My cousin’s son has gotten very interested in our family history and shared some ancient photos and documents he’s unearthed. I happen to have some of that sort of thing myself. Would he be interested? By cracky—I say, antiquely—he would.
The reason I have all these photos and scrapbooks is that when my parents died, over forty years ago, and we kids got together to divide the spoils, such as they were, I volunteered to be the family archivist. It sounded cool. I was the youngest, by a lot, and maybe I should have gotten a clue when my brother and sisters knocked each other over leaping up to shove boxes to my side of the room before I changed my mind.
I went home with my treasure and peeled it open. When all four of your grandparents were born between 1874 and 1882, you’ve got the promise of some serious antiquity. I believe I got as far in my triage as separating the loot into Mommy and Daddy piles, and stacking them into boxes, and transferring them to a bottom drawer somewhere; and then I put my archival duties away in an even dustier location behind my brain’s filing cabinet.
Even the word “archivist” is collecting dust in there. Archivist is one of those words I never seem to come up with when I need it, and my brain tends to supply “Anarchist” instead. Which is appropriate, because when it comes to organizing thoughts and getting around to doing things, nobody seems to be in charge up there. And I guess it’s better than “Antichrist.”
So this is an altogether wonderful thing: an eager, organized, fully grown human being is actually doing what I once said I’d do, and he wants my stuff. I located all the old boxes and had at it. Here’s the thing. Many people have trouble getting rid of stuff, even if having it feels burdensome and they will never ever use any of it again and no one else will ever want it. But almost everybody has trouble getting rid of old photographs. Ditching them feels something like presiding over an extinction.
You spend an afternoon looking at photos of your mom from age four through 34 and you realize she really did smile like that all the time, like she was truly tickled to see you, and your heart feels as bursty as it did when you were in her lap being her sweetie-pie sugar-plum, and your own face cracks open just to see that smile again, and there is no other value in this world to these photographs, which you have not looked at in forty years. In fact, hanging onto them is a little time-bomb of guilt to give your heirs, who will have even less use for them and will also feel bad about throwing them away. It makes even less sense for me, because I have no heirs who are related to that side of the family. In my line, I’m either the dead-end or the culmination, depending on your viewpoint.
But it has been immensely heartening to leaf through these album pages and framed portraits and recognize something stalwart and cheerful and just plain good about these people that ribboned out of Norway and curled up in North Dakota, some echo of which I dare to think I hear in my own cells. I’m proud and grateful to have lucked into this particular gene pool, even over my more illustrious but melancholic paternal strain.
So I scanned a few dozen favorites and sent the originals to their new home where they will be treated properly for once. It’s a good thing. It’s 2022, and we don’t any of us have the future we should have had. Not anymore. At least for me, I know my past looks bright.
I also have a huge compendium of photo albums in my attic from my maternal side of the family. Also, no heirs, and I never look at photo albums. (I even cringe when someone wants to show me a picture on their smart phone.) Fortunately, during the pandemic, Paul’s sister got bored and wanted to be the archivist for his side of the family. So all the pictures from his side were sent on to her.
I, too, cannot just toss them away for some reason, even though I have no trouble getting rid of clutter otherwise. Perhaps it’s a way of holding onto a happier past, since our future is going to be nasty, brutish, and short.
Well MY future is going to be short for sure because I’ve got too much past built up already.
At an antique store the other day, I leafed through a file of photos. The box label said, “Need a prettier family? Here they are!”
The weird thing is my family has gorgeousness on both sides. However: my paternal grandmother’s many sisters were utterly stunning, but she looked kind of sad and deformed. And my mother’s siblings were all beautiful, but she was…um…”the smart one.” (According to my aunt.)
My mother put forth a gargantuan effort to write the date, location, and person’s names on the back of all the family and ancestral photos. She often lamented that certain photos in her possession were lacking that sort of information and identification of the ‘who, when and where’ were lost forever.
I wonder if it was the era. My mom did too.
A very thoughtful piece, Murr. Thankyou. For me, the fascinating thing about being more than three quarters of a century old is the realization that “long ago” was not so very long ago. History and people are now on my bumper in the rear view mirror and I entertain their struggles and even their myths with some compassion.
It’s very vivid to me. I have two great-grandfathers who served (on either side) in the Civil War.
We don’t have many photos, but I am the keeper of the stories. Unfortunately, there is enough Irish in my makeup to refuse to spoil a good story just for the sake of the truth. “Your great great grandfather Chris had to leave Norway for shooting landlords out of season. On the other side, great great grandpa Raphael left Russia with his wife and 8 children and traveled to New York on a cattle boat. One of the twins died of cholera on the crossing.. Raphael wound up with 13 adult children but he wore out three perfectly good wives in the process.”
What YOU is, is a writer.
Lined this, however I’m still trying to figure out how a photo of me and my best friend Dick got into the Skari album!
It got into the Brewster album. Hey, maybe my mom took the picture when she was visiting!
That’s “Loved”. I’m sure there’s a line in there!
Planning a trip this summer (if Putin permits) to Vilnius, Lithuania (paternal family) and to Wroclaw, Poland (formerly Breslau, Germany; maternal family) to retrace my ashkenazi roots. (NatGeo genetics came back 100% ashkenazi; they didn’t let my people move around a lot. Vilnius is but 425 miles from Wroclaw)
I wonder if my people smote your people with a broad-axe right down the middle. Hmm.
That would hardly have been necessary, as the more local people were always happy to smite Ashkenazim, which is why my grandparents came here from Warsaw and “someplace near Odessa.”
My people be broad-axe smoting people too–I’m 1/2 Viking, with a trace of Ashkenazi from my dad’s side (according to “23 and Me”). Conflicted much?
After my sibs and I spent a couple of days going through all our parents’ photo albums, salvaging what we wanted for ourselves, I scanned the remaining photos over the course of a couple of weeks. It felt absolutely sacrilegious throwing those pages and albums away after they were scanned, but there was nobody in the family who wanted the physical articles. Digital doesn’t take up shelf space or collect dust. Now I’m hoping one of the many nieces and/or nephews will eventually have an interest in all these GBs of ones and zeroes, representing generations. That’s (tracing family roots) a rabbit hole away from which I’m strenuously keeping myself!
I get ALL of that.
But what I really wanted to say was that I see your half-smile and intelligent eyes in that 3rd photo!
Aww. I do look something like my mother. Same body for sure. She is on the left in the top photo, and looks a ton like me at that age.
My children already have photocopies of the family tree my mum made for me, so they can add to it as their children marry and have more children, while I add the newbies to my own copy, which is nothing more than photocopies of old photos on foolscap paper put into a folder. I don’t know who has the originals of all those photos. It’s a very one-sided tree, almost no information on my Paternal side, but Maternal lines going back to 1824 in Sweden.
That’s unusual! I am struck by how little information there is on the distaff side. They made babies, they kept the house/farm. It’s a terrible thing to give up your name.
😮💨 oh darn, did you read the unfortunate “Gold Co.” Advertisement on the first page?
The what now? Is this something on your screen as you’re reading Murrmurrs? If so it’s sneaking in from somewhere else. I certainly have not seen it.
Neither have I. I googled it, but still don’t understand…..
Having been the recipient and guardian of family memorabilia, I began sorting, labeling where I could, scanning and abandoning photos. Especially those containing friends my kids wouldn’t know. My oldest did a wonderful online family tree for us. it contains photos, anecdotes, video and lots of info. But who will keep it when he is gone? Murr, I would have sworn that was you in antiquey get up.
Startled me too. I hadn’t remembered seeing a childhood photo of my mom.
Boy you look like your mom….and I hardly know you.
I do! With smaller, closer-set eyes and ten more chins.
Lovely story. Made me smile about my own past. I, too, have boxes of old photos I don’t know what to do with. At least I pruned most of the dozens of pictures of planes refueling in the air taken by my father. Occasionally I am bitten by a legacy bug and update some of my ancestry, but mostly it goes ignored.
I wonder what essence of ourselves we’re seeking as we do this.
My brother and I are the end of the branch on our tree. My cousins have created a few biological replacements to keep the basic line going, however. Being a confused half Viking and half Ashkenazi I look back at the family tree and few photos and never know if I should say “Uff da” or “Oy vey”.
Earlier “advertisement” comment was in error. Not a Murr issue, but probably my iPhone. It has vanished.