Photographs and Memories

My mother’s family was enamoured of photography from its early days. Somewhere in the family archives is a photograph of my great-grandmother standing with her grandfather and a pony. She was just a little girl, maybe eight years old. I imagine that the photograph was taken before 1900.

You may be curious to see this photo, but I don’t have it. Probably one of my sisters or my uncle has it. I don’t keep many photos. We have a box of them taken by my husband’s family, and a few of my own children, but I don’t keep photos. I don’t feel a need to document my life.

There’s nothing important about my family. I have no interest in I have a geneology one of my sisters compiled, but I think it is inaccurate. But I don’t much care. Our ancestors were ordinary people, nothing to boast of. I’m not interested anymore in being related to this famous person, or that royal antecedent. What good does that do me now?

People in past ages, unless they were really rich, couldn’t afford to keep likenesses of themselves or their loved ones. They just remembered. They told stories, repeating them often over the evening fire or during long hours of work. How accurate were they? I don’t know. Often they were probably very accurate; they had practice at remembering and retelling. These stories told the younger gneration how to live, what to believe, what to keep as important. Pictures weren’t common. I wonder if our ancestors, pre-printing, even understood visual representations. Uneducated people almost never saw art except in the church, and church art of the medieval and earlier eras seems distorted and strange to us, not likenesses.

I think as modern people we are more concerned with being remembered as persons than as people who did things. We objectify ourselves in photographs scrapbooks, memorials. People don’t tell stories about us; we create our own stories and put some spin on them.

Our names are written in heaven; the Lord remembers us even when the world has forgotten us.  Mother Teresa, in Calcutta, ministered to the dying nameless, people unclaimed by friends or relatives, who came to her door for final comfort. She often didn’t know their names or anything about them, yet she took them in, her sisters cared for them, and they died with love and peace. Only God knew their names and histories. Are they any less important than us, well-documented as we are?

Maybe my children and grandchildren and even my great-grandchildren will know my name, have some photos of me, have some stories to tell. I hope they remember the good ones, if they remember at all. But that’s not important. I belong to Christ, not this world. He will never forget my name. I can slip into forgotten time, buried anonymously or be nothing more than an indistinct mark on an old granite marker. I will be home where there is no forgetting true love.


7 thoughts on “Photographs and Memories

  1. My scots grandmother had a wealth of family stories as well as folktales and what would probably be labeled morality tales that I have never been able to document from other sources. Her long dead great aunts and uncles, sister and cousins were more familiar to us as children than most of our own classmates. For us they still moved through the world. Photos don’t do that. In photos people are forever frozen, still and lifeless as statues. It is in the memory that the departed live, not in photos. When we were an oral tradition culture instead of a written and photograph culture the past meant more to us because it was a living heritage passed down through the generations. And that in part was the value of the old, old people–they were the living link to that heritage, they were our living memory. You still see it in some of the aboriginal peoples who have kept their traditional ways.

    • My sisters are all scrapbookers and photo collectors, and I am not! I remember sitting with my father and uncles, listening to their childhood stories, and the stories my grandparents had of their early years together. We send our elders to live in retirement homes or communities, isolating them with their peers – as if we have no use for them. How I wish my mother and grandmothers were alive and living with me! I could use their knowledge and wisdome every day.

  2. You keep coming up with such interesting things to talk about. Fun. I have several comments. First one – family videos. We thought way back when that we would really appreciate those videos and the truth is now that so many of our loved ones in them are gone, they depress us badly to look at them. And there is an eerie element to it since we can see and hear them just like they are still around. It is like cheating or something. We don’t watch them anymore. I grieved and still go through some grieving and I did look at my mom’s pathetic little box of pictures she clung to in her last years. I looked at them and cried and cried for a while. I never have looked at them much again. She died in 2003. I like what I have in my mind best of all when I need to think about her. Looking at pics might help some folks, but they don’t really help me in the grieving process. My mom’s box of pictures of people dead and gone were more important to her than working on relationships with her grandkids and other living loved ones who were not around in the earlier years of her life. At any rate, I think, too, that seeing videos of dead loved ones can really upset some people. We gave up doing that years ago, and I never did know how to work the camcorder.

    I do find pictures of anyone from another time very interesting to look at. I do have some pics given to me of relatives from the 1800’s and probably more from the very early 1900’s. It is interesting to see who looks like who and the mystery for my daughter and me is “where did grandma REALLY come from??” Somebody lied. She was an old white haired lady with black eyebrows and dark eyes, but as a young woman, wow, did she look ethnic with the coal black hair and blackish eyes, and kinda big nose and yet she was attractive to me in a certain way. Supposedly Irish and yes, they were from there, but I think someone had taken refuge there and told them not to tell. But this stuff is just fun. I loved hearing Grandma’s stories from her younger years and how life was then. She lived to be 99 and so I got to have a lot more time with her than many people get.
    I am so like you Magdalena about pictures. Part of it is from my dad being a photographer for Allison’s and I don’t know how they kept him so busy photographing airplane parts and enlarging/reducing them etc… but they did. But at home he went through a phase where he was always taking pics of people and events and guess who had to be his model? His first born of course, me. I hated it. I hate having my picture taken to this day and people get mad at me. So even though I had a fancy camera I could not figure it out – probably because I had zero interest in using it. I felt guilty about that, too! like what kind of mother am I that I don’t have portraits of my kids all over ( never would give the money for it) or tons of albums. So, I would go buy these cheapo disposable cameras for birthdays or whatever and I have in my purse a couple I found in the back of the old refrigerator outside ( someone said to store them there once). I never had the money to develop them and so I stuck them in my purse last year to get them developed and….. they are still there. I mean these things are at least 10 yrs old!! Can you tell what a priority photos are with me? My daughter and Patrick are camera buffs, but they didn’t get it from me. I am hoping to take the photos currently all over the landing in different containers and trunks into 3 piles for each kid to either put into albums all nice and neat or to stash them like I did in some trunk.


    • I was a museum curator for a couple of years, and one of my jobs was to get the photos sorted, identified, and into acid free storage boxes. Many of the portraits weren’t labelled, and I would try to group them by age, characteristics, what I’d seen in neighbours’ houses hanging on their walls or in albums – but I was discouraged from pursuing who someone was by who they looked like because in a Swedish immigrant community in the late 1800s – well, things weren’t always as they appeared. I pulled out a great photo of a man fishing and asked one of the museum directors, “Is this (name withheld!)’s father – because it looks just like him!” “No-o-o, that’s (name also withheld because the supposed father and son did not have the same last name) when he had a camp up this way.” Right. Stop speculating! So I didn’t sort the photos into family groups, just by date, age, costume, etc.

      I can look at old photos and tell you what fabrics they are wearing, how the clothes were made, and so forth, but the people themselves don’t interest me much – just what they are doing. It was kind of a creepy task since “dead” photos were common. Someone’s grandmother would die back in Sweden, the family would gather around the open coffin, and a photo taken to be sent to the emigrant family. I figured out how to tell if the photo had been taken in the local community or in Sweden by the style of coffin and the clothes. I had a box just for funeral photos.

      I thought of making scrapbooks for my husband’s kids, but decided against it. They can come get the original photos and do it themselves if they want.

  3. How interesting! You must be a great organizer. I used to be, but I have been beaten to the point where that obsession in me is subdued. I am hoping it can be reconstituted at some, hopefully, less stressful time of life.
    Yeah, that is creepy taking pictures of people in caskets. But to some cultures it isn’t, I guess. I don’t mean to judge anyone. I have a friend whose husband died in a car wreck some years ago and I was suprised to see she had an album of pictures of all angles of his smashed up car, like to show where he died and how it all looked. I think she had a picture of him in his casket, but not a close up. I had trouble understanding that, but maybe it somehow made her feel better connecting to him at that last place. I would have felt adverse to the place and the car.

    I was reading a book this week I am not sure I should have read because it had so much graphic detail about the fighting. But it was a book on the Commanches, the most powerful tribe and the last to be ousted, in this case, Texas. It was about Quanah the warrior son of the white squaw of Cynthia Ann Parker who was taken by the Commanches when she was 8 or 9. Classic story, but this author really presented both sides very unbiased, which is unusual. I love history and it painted the incredible changes going on in this country in the 1800’s and weaved it all together in a way I had never seen it put together before. Anyhow, people tried to ransom Cynthia many times and she wanted to stay with her husband and children and was perfectly happy as a very wild living Indian. Eventually, her husband was killed as the Commanches were being exterminated and she was forced back to her family at age 32 or 33 with her 2 or 3 yr old little girl. She was so beyond miserable and someone took her picture with her nursing her little girl, which was never done with white women normally. Her expression is something one doesn’t forget. Her story written on her face. Pictures like that interest me, because it makes me think deeply about life and all the complexities.

    • Yes, one of the problems many small museums have is that unless they can hire a professional, they end up with disorganized and uncataloged collections. I have a mind given to ordering things.

      I learned a lot from our photo collections, how things were done in the past, and solved a puzzle, too. We had photos from Sweden of Christmas celebrations and the rooms were decorated with some multi-coloured fringe (we assume it’s multi-coloured because the hues in the black and white photos differ) historians wanted to know why they would have made such an extravagant decoration when the Swedish peasants had so little money. As a living history curator, I was able to answer that question quickly. The “fringe” was (probably) warp ends from the loom, pieces of thread to short to re-use, looped over a string to make something just for pretty!

  4. I enjoy pictures personally, a lot because of losing my mom at a young age. It is a way to remember what she looked like. I also love taking pictures of beautiful trees, flowers etc. to share that beauty. I am not really much for having my picture taken with my body being twisted some but I will oblige people. And I do share a lot of my hobbies and daily life but not for praise but to share with the friends I have on the computer. It keeps me from feeling so isolated. Huggles, sister.

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