At the beginning of the summer, I took on a momentous task. I began organizing all the bags and boxes my dad found in an old family house. The house was built in 1899, then abandoned in 1981 when my great-uncle had a stroke, and in between those years, my ancestors accumulated quite a bit. There were the clear heirlooms: a Bible from 1860 with a list of family names folded into the middle. My great-great-grandparents’ marriage certificate. A Civil War infantry tactics manual and a bayonet from World War II.
And there were pictures: boxes upon boxes of pictures. We found a portrait of my grandfather’s oldest sibling, Vernon, who died at only one year old. Nobody knew there was a picture of him. We have pictures from the 1880s to the 1980s. Pictures sent home from war. Pictures taken on vacation, or on the porch at Christmas, or on graduation day.
But there comes a point, sorting through it all, when it feels less like heirlooms and more like trash. My ancestors didn’t throw away their junk mail. I have a box full of pictures nobody alive recognizes. It’s interesting to read the motivational articles my great-aunts clipped from the newspaper, but then what?
It can get overwhelming. There are days when I know better than to try organizing any of my family’s pictures and letters, because it’s too much and I’m in a mood where I just might throw it all away.
My dad has this phrase he’ll use when he looks in my trash bag and pulls something back out — an obituary for a name I didn’t recognize, sometimes, or a tourist pamphlet my great-aunt Gladys picked up on some vacation in the 60s. “I just hate to throw anything away,” he’ll say, “because you never know, maybe for someone, it’s the missing piece they’re looking for.”
And I understand what he’s saying, I do. We plan to take a lot of this inheritance to a local historical society and let them deal with it.
But there are times when I find a newspaper clipping about how my great-great-grandfather was awarded an honor from the Texas Forestry Society, and as special as it is, all I can think is: the missing piece here is a man I’ll never meet. I have certificates, pictures, letters, souvenirs, diplomas, receipts, clothes — even a lock of hair. I have the pieces I need to trace the maps of my ancestors’ lives. But they were all gone before I was born. I will never be able to have a conversation with them.
A few days ago I came upon a box of pictures that restored my sense that this effort is worthwhile: pictures of my dad and his parents and siblings. There is a unique delight in seeing pictures of people when pictures aren’t the only place you’ve seen them. When you recognize their expression or their posture. “Oh,” said my dad when I showed him this box, “these are much less interesting. You don’t have to go through these.”
In this box is where I made my favorite discovery. It is a picture of my grandparents. My grandmother died before I was born, but my grandfather, the last of his generation, died in December. He was notoriously straight-faced in pictures, but I found what seemed to be a fluke: the two of them, standing in front of their Christmas tree as if someone were about to take the standard photographic document of the occasion — but they’re laughing. In the next picture, they’re composed as usual.
This is a picture I will keep. I will probably even frame it. After finding this, I think about the pictures I’ve come across of my great-aunts’ college friends. The obituaries my great-uncle kept of his work buddies. All the Christmas cards from cousins. Nobody meant for these to be heirlooms. They were mementos of people known and loved.
While I’m grateful to get to know my ancestors through their pictures, letters, and the things they held on to, what I really want to do now is to spend time with the loved ones around me. To become familiar with my family and friends’ faces so that seeing their picture is a joy, because it is a reminder of their presence.
Another thing this undertaking has prompted me to do is to make art.
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