Paging through the Past

1870_001-copy-2As a child, like so many others, I enjoyed paging through old family photo albums.

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.

I’d gaze at the images of those who graced those pages and wonder about the lives those people had led in decades so long past. Their still faces stared back at me—their secrets sealed in time.1907_001 copy 2

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.

1928_001 copy 2Those 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.”

Why wouldn’t she tell us more?1923_002 copy

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.

1931_001 copy 2

1929_001 copy 2So 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

This entry was posted in Family Legends, Photo Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Paging through the Past

  1. ginisology says:

    Even though I lost my mom 2 1/2 years ago . . . same thing, so many questions that will never be answered. I wished I had asked or pushed more. Now we just fill in the gaps as best we can. A great post Patricia . . . I have had the same thoughts and you put them into words, thank you!

    • Thank you, Gini. Losing a parent, whether in our youth or in our later years, is never easy. Aren’t we fortunate though, as genealogists, to try to reconstruct those lives with words and images so we can pass them on to our children? I’m so grateful for this avocation of ours that enables us to do just that. Thanks for following me on GeneaJourneys!

  2. says:


  3. Debi Austen says:

    Photos are what I love most. I love looking at the faces while I not only try to determine who they are but what they were thinking and going through at the time. It especially saddens me to see the faces of little children and then find out they didn’t live much longer.

  4. Lorene says:

    Well said, Pat. Another great article. I haven’t seen some of these photos before.

  5. Hi Pat. Another wonderful post. I think we can all relate to not being able to get first hand accounts of our history. We can only try to piece together as much as possible so that others can come to know about them.

  6. Meg Biallas says:

    Very neat post, Mom! I’m sure your mother would tell you the answers today if she could — and she would be so proud of you, too. I know I am.

  7. Dear Pat, You describe beautifully the experience of looking through old photo albums, with a sense of bafflement and wonder and melancholy. Not only that, you express what happened to me — a reluctance among the adults to talk about the past. I wonder why?

    Was it a generational thing? Maybe there were social taboos that our parents didn’t want to cross. My ancestors owned slaves, but for *some* reason that was never, ever mentioned by anyone in my family, and I learned that whole part of our history only 10 to 15 years ago. My parents were so worried about one of us “disgracing the family” in some way, that they probably held back all information (except a few sentimental anecdotes) out of general principles.

    All of us today who are involved in family history can’t wait to tell our kids about the past. The more details we collect, the more we want to say to them . . . when they grow up and are interested. Just last night, I found a niece ready to “take on” some family documents from me, as a future custodian. She was thrilled! She just turned 40. Maybe succeeding generations won’t be so “quiet” about family history.

    Thank you for invoking the longing for memories, and the need for information, with which we are all constantly engaged. Great post!

    • Thank you, Mariann, for your very thoughtful reflection on this post. It is such a pleasure to know that my writing resonates with others. It makes my efforts in finding just the right turn of phrase so worthwhile!

      You are right, this piece was written with a sense of bafflement, wonder and melancholy–perhaps because there’s really no going back to learn those truths and secrets. That opportunity has passed.

      So happy for you that you have found a custodian for all your family history and research. May we all be so fortunate to find someone in our own families willing to carry on the legacy of telling our families’ tales!

      Thanks for following me on Geneajourneys!

  8. Jana Last says:

    I just love this post! I wish my maternal grandpa had shared his family history with us. Perhaps it was too painful for him to think about and share, as I think his childhood was somewhat difficult. There are so many questions I wish I could ask him now.

  9. Bill Desmond says:


    Who are the three men in the first photo?

    • Hi Bill ~ Those are Donar men–on my mom’s side of the family. Her grandparents had 9 kids. Seven of them were boys, so I’m still trying to sort out who each one could be. I suspect the one standing on the right, however, is my maternal grandfather, Peter Donar.

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