It was a treat to pull out those old scrapbooks with the soft black pages and perfect white penmanship in my mother’s hand that detailed the images within. The photos were held in place—just barely—by crooked photo corners; the books’ covers tied together on the left hand side with faded, frayed, thin silk cords.
The clothing, expressions and backgrounds captured in those family relics, intrigued me to no end. The earliest tintypes and studio shots of ancestors from the turn of the century were a marvel to me. Really? I’m related to them? Too hard for an eight year old to comprehend.
So I’d turn the page and move on to some names and faces I did recognize, even if most of them had died before I was born, as well. At least my parents and a few of my siblings had actually known these folks, making it a bit more conceivable that these people were kin.
Those faces—of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s—were actually more fascinating to me than those from earlier eras. Over the years I’d heard them referred to, and from time to time, enjoyed the classic retellings of their stories, now staples of our family’s folklore. These were people I could feel connected to.
Even so, I didn’t often ask my mother about those relatives, and she offered little detail about them when I did: “Oh, he was my brother—he died young….”
That was always a mystery to me. “How young was he when he died?” I thought. “What did he pass away from? How did that affect your family, Mom? You were only 18, your father died five months later, and the country was on the precipice of the Great Depression.”
Asked about another photo she simply stated: “That’s Aunt Helen. Her husband died three years after they were married. She raised your cousin from the age of two while supporting our widowed mother.”
So many questions… so few answers…
There was a sense of sadness that permeated those scrapbook pages. So much so, that it felt taboo to probe my mother about these people—my people—family from the past. It felt improper, like I was prying, asking too much.
Was it the times? Did people not talk about their hardships and heartbreaks? Or was it just too much sadness for my mom to recount?
Who’s to know?
I didn’t have much time to find out either. I lost my mom when I was 16—forty years before my passion for family history ignited.
So now, in the absence of that best, firsthand account I might have received about my ancestors, I search online, in archives, at courthouses, and between book covers to learn all I can about the times—if not the lives—of these people who are my own.
Perhaps eventually, with enough persistence and gentle probing of those few who remain, I’ll be able to partially reconstruct the stories of these people who are family.
It’s the least I can do for my own children who may one day ask of a face in a photo frame: “Who’s that, Mom? How am I related?”
Copyright © 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas