Before the digital age of photography, we printed our pictures and mounted them in albums. We had wedding albums, graduation albums, christening albums and vacation albums. We made scrapbooks chronicling every detail of our child’s life (I only got to age three and it took nine albums, so I entered a 12-step scrapbook recovery program to kick that habit). If you were not careful, you would be invited to dinner at a friend’s home just after they returned from their recent trip through the Panama Canal, and held hostage until you looked at every single shot they took (That one’s not so great because Bert’s head is in the way, but you get the idea- the Panama Canal is so much bigger in person! Don’t you think?). People bought slide projectors and transferred their photographs to slides. Sets of slides were kept in carousels in proper order. I always hated carrying the slide carousel for fear I would once again trip and hundreds of tiny slides would fly across the room. It was a huge production to get them all back in their tiny slots in the right order and not upside down or backwards. With the advent of the slide projector, a new challenge arose- staying awake! With albums, your host had to leave the lights on which made it harder to fall asleep or at least more embarrassing when you did. But with the slide projector, the lights went off and, if you positioned your body just right, you could sleep through the whole thing. Of course, when the lights came on and you were startled from your slumber, you might inappropriately shout “just stunning, so lovely” after a slide show of your Aunt Lena’s funeral.
A great benefit of this era was that people generally passed on their photographs. Generations of pictures would accumulate. The photographs held the collective story of the family. Even when holes existed in the actual story, the photographs often gave us the clues. Since we pass on more than our DNA, they also, in important ways, hold the clues to our own personal story. I have been fortunate to be the recipient of family photographs from several branches of our family tree going back to the early 1900s. A few years ago, I inherited my maternal great aunt’s collection. I always liked her. She struck me as gutsy and strong. Born in 1920 on a small farm in what is now Issaquah Washington, she struck out on her own in her mid-20’s to live in New York city. I once asked her what it was like to move across the country in the 1940s all alone. She said it was her greatest adventure and I knew then that I had inherited some of her spirit. She told me that the world was a very different place back then and so, though she was an adult, she had to get her father’s permission to move that far away to take a job with Bell Telephone. She had to have roommates because it was not acceptable for an unmarried woman to live alone. Her job was to increase the efficiency of the operators. It was a relatively new job and few women held management positions. I cannot imagine the courage it would have taken to do this in the 40s long, long before technology made the world such a small and convenient place. I am sure letters and postcards carried news to family and friends arriving days or weeks later. Traveling home would have been costly, arduous and infrequent. But as I looked through her pictures, I saw a woman unafraid of the challenge. She is always smiling or laughing. Her photographs tell the story of a life well-lived. Throughout the years, she documented her adventures as she traversed the states camping, hiking and golfing with friends. She dressed up and went to parties. She dressed down and went to the pool. She fell in love but never married. Until her dying day, she lived with joy and courage.
Though I do not look like her, I feel I inherited her spirit. The beauty of family photos, especially those passed down for generations, is that you discover the deep roots of those special parts of yourself. I come from a long line of a strong women. I may not look like them all, but the pictures tell the real story.