Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Photograph’s Journey

Mrs C J McKinnon of Baltimore MD as child in Central America
Don’t you just love it when, flipping through old family photographs, a sweet face stares back at you and captures your heart?

For the last several days, I’ve been stymied with the rush of all the family pictures I’ve suddenly inherited. Blame it on holiday obligations or a lingering cold that befuddles my mind, but I’m stuck under an avalanche of glossies. I have no clue where to begin to sort this collection into anything that would make sense to the proverbial innocent bystander.

I’d like to set out to document my findings in a logical progression—something along the lines of branches in the family tree—but I can’t even find enough room to claim as working space to sort and label the mess.

So I keep flipping through pockets of pictures tucked away in envelopes, old wallets—everything but labeled albums—wondering where to begin.

And then this cherubic face looks up at me and nearly begs, “Start here.”

So, as usual, I find myself, once again, starting from the middle.

Here, in the middle of my aunt’s collection of family keepsakes, is a photo of a young child. My guess is that the picture was snapped by her mother, who penned on the reverse, “I love her in this picture made in the back lawn.”

I’m presuming the rest of the story about the journey this picture took from there to here involved mailing it to the photographer’s own mother. Thankfully, that grandmother had enough sense to label the picture with the grandchild’s name, for in a different hand and color of ink, the words were inserted, “Sarah Martha Moore.”

I wonder if the rest of the journey for this picture involved this grandmother’s son inheriting the woman’s personal effects, including this photograph. He, in turn, left it up to his wife to organize and dispose of the collection as she saw fit. His wife, apparently, chose to keep the photo, but upon her passing, the whole collection became the property of her daughter.

That daughter would be my aunt.

And now, I have the photograph of Sarah Martha, from Ruth McClellan Davishusband’s mother, Martha Cassandra Boothe Davis, who received it in a note from her daughter Lummie Davis Moore, mother of the young Sarah Martha. And I'm so grateful someone decided to label the picture.

Isn’t your head spinning? That’s why genealogists employ databases to keep this stuff straight.

Thinking about Sarah Martha always makes me sad. Not because of Sarah Martha, herself—I never met this cousin-once-removed. But I’ve heard her name so many times. She was my mother’s favorite cousin on her paternal side.

Back in the early 1990s, when I rebooted my pursuit of family history, I had been discussing all the now-available resources I had found online in my customary phone calls back east to my mother. My mom had perked up at the notion that people with whom she had lost contact might still be accessible through online searches.

“Can you see whatever happened to Sarah Martha?” she asked me. Certain that I could, I promised her I would make that a priority.

Sadly, not more than a few months later, I ran across an item indicating that Sarah Martha—or at least someone who, strangely, had managed to have the exact same name—had passed away.

All the data was right. By this time I had inherited my grandmother’s little address book, showing “Mr. and Mrs. C. J. McKinnon”—Sarah Martha’s married name, according to that prim and proper Southern style of address—living in a Baltimore suburb right by the place where this Sarah Martha had died.

Any genealogist, however, knows it’s not really over until the fat lady sends that confirming copy of the death certificate, so I didn’t want to say anything to my mom until I could determine that I had the right person. Sending for a copy of that cert, however, is not an easy thing in the state of Maryland unless you are the direct descendant of the deceased. I, of course, was not.

I thought I’d try a different route: obituaries. Even with the help of the friendly librarian at the city’s main library, none could be located.

Cemetery? I was clueless where to look. I gave it my best try, but no results in the Baltimore area.

I even tried looking up others with the same surname in the suburb, writing those “please-excuse-me-for-the-intrusion” letters in hopes that one would find its way to the right family. After all, those would possibly be second cousins I’d be connecting with, if any answered. No response.

The more daunting approach was to guess what those prim-and-proper Southern-style initials might represent for Sarah Martha’s husband. Perhaps he had an obituary published which could lead me to any descendants. I remember sitting down at the computer one long evening and starting a search, trying for possibilities every man’s name beginning with the letter “C.”

I gave up long before the middle of the alphabet. And that’s a good thing, as I realized when I later found the likely candidate for those initials to be “Cyril John.”

It’s been nearly twenty years since I had to tell my mom that, best I could tell, she would no longer be able to enjoy a later-life reunion with her beloved cousin. In those many years, I’ve thought, wistfully, about Sarah Martha many times. What an interesting life she must have led, being the only daughter of a teacher who married an older railroad executive with the caveat that the deal that began with “I do” included a life lived in exotic locations in far-away Central America. What a wonderful wrap to such a life's story to find a way to reunite two cousins.

I can find, thanks to documents available at, records of Sarah Martha's earlier travels back to the States to visit family or to return to the boarding school she attended in her later childhood. Oh, how I wished I could have made that personal connection, though. Sometimes, it’s nice to use those genealogical research skills to find those of our family we are seeking among the living.


  1. Not always the outcome we hope for. It is a cute photo and I am so glad it was marked:)

    1. I knew you'd share my appreciation for the label, Far Side, considering how many old photos you've rescued over the years and reunited with family members.

  2. If you should ever find her cemetery - I will take a photo of the stone. Columbia, Maryland isn't that far away from me - and it's on the way to my parent's summer place on the bay.

    I could be boots on the ground for this - but wouldn't know where to start.

    1. Thank you so much, Iggy, for that offer. I will keep it in mind. Who knows, maybe by next summer I will actually find the answer to this decades-long search and figure out what I needed to know about this mystery branch of our family.


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