How Many Photos Represent A Person’s Life?

There are images in our family collections that jump out at us. I hear it from clients over and over how a few photos stand out more than others.

I have pictures like that too.

I’ve recently started grouping images together to tell the story of a person. It’s an important way to pass on our heritage. Words and pictures together create a powerful tapestry. 

As a genealogist, the themes in a family are intriguing and sometimes the photos we own are part of that thread. Think about the answers to these two questions.

If you had to choose a few photos of an ancestor to tell their life story which ones would you pick?  And why?

A Family Matriarch

I’ve written about my paternal grandmother before in Deciphering the Past: One Family Hero At a Time. I’ve chosen six images to tell her story.

In a slightly blurred image gone red over time is an elderly woman blowing out the candles on a cake. She’s been crying. No big deal, right.  It’s a classic birthday image, but what if I told you it was her first birthday cake. EVER. Suddenly that image doesn’t seem very ordinary, it’s a moment frozen in time that represents her life. She turned 70 and my Mom made the cake but how does this image fit into the picture context of her life story?

The woman is my paternal grandmother Eliza. Born in 1892, she lived through multiple wars, a pandemic, and the influx of technology. That image is not just a birthday snapshot captured by an unknown guest. It’s an iconic image and one of the last pictures ever taken of her. But what other images exist to tell us about the rest of her life.

There is only one childhood picture of her.  A faded scratched image by a not very accomplished Providence, RI photographer. I estimate she’s 4 in this.  It’s not in great shape, but it goes in the picture story to represent her younger years.

She was the only grandparent I knew. Both grandfather’s passed years before I was born, and my maternal grandmother died when I was one.

This Nana/Gramma as we called her was a mystery. She watched us for a bit while Mom worked. There were no toys in her apartment. When we were bored, she’d hand us a box of spindles wound tightly with bright colored silk threads leftovers from someone’s employment at a nearby mill or her button jar (which I have today).

We lived downstairs from her in a three-floor tenement in Central Falls, RI a community down on its luck today and then too.  A single square mile of city of working-class folks and many immigrants. 

My memories of her consist of those odd playthings, the way she pronounced certain words like “yella” for yellow and her parakeet, Tweety Bird.  But the most prominent memory is of her silence. 

She was quiet. As an adult I look back and realize she was too still. She’d sit looking out a window that overlooked the street. When I asked why, she told me she was remembering all the people that were gone.  The losses had accumulated and left her in perpetual mourning. In a time without Facetime and Zoom. Out of sight was total absence.  

Her husband, ill for a long time died in 1953. I have one picture of her with him taken not long before he died. The affection between them visible.  This has the MyHeritage touch.

Unfortunately, there are no images of her with some of her children that could be added to the tale. Two of her daughters married during World War II to Navy men who settled them in California and Tennessee. Her eldest son moved his young family to California in the late 1940s.

A Mystery That Wasn’t One

One day I received a call from a cousin who’d inherited boxes of pictures from her brother asking if I could come to New York to look at them. In the boxes were many pictures of our grandmother. 

“Who is that woman,” she asked. “She’s in so many photographs.”

I sat stunned and realized she’d never met our mutual grandmother since they lived on opposite coasts. And just like that those pictures could have been discarded as a mystery. It appears her father never talked about his mother.

But in that collection of images from my long-deceased uncle was a treasure. My grandmother in a fancy hat with a Mona Lisa smile on her face taken in 1943 before her boys left for war. Enhanced with photo tools

 It’s one of my favorites. She’s showing a love for fashion in that hat. I suspect my Dad bought it for her. There is another image taken at the same time of him in his uniform. Instead of the sad woman who missed her family, I prefer this version of her taken when life was a struggle but still full of happiness.

 The only image of her in fancy dress is this one.

It’s on silk and could be a wedding portrait of her. She married in 1912 and the fashion fits. That smile is there. She’s left home for a better life with my grandfather, no inkling of what was to come.

Weaving the Story

So how many photographs does it take to tell the story of an ancestral life?   I’ve selected six of my favorites but how many are enough? These aren’t the only images I have of her, but these stay in my mind.

There is one more. It’s me on her lap. The only one of those. In it I can see our resemblance. I’ve inherited her hands and unfortunately her feet.

So why the one birthday cake? She told my mother that her mother, Sarah, was an angry mean person, someone she escaped by marrying my grandfather. The reasons for Sarah’s feelings were deep seated in the family history and in her own choices. But that’s a tale for another day.

Do you have photographs of women in your family that you’d like to know more about? 

My new webinar, Reading Clues in Photos of Women: Wives, Daughters, Sisters, and Mothers is for you. Early registration is open for $30. for this 1.5 hour long webinar hosted on Crowdcast.