Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Tokens of Their Existence

What is it about ephemera that converts their transitory meaninglessness into zeitgeist collectibles? Here today, but supposed to be gone tomorrow, these are tokens of life lived that were meant to be discarded: theater tickets, old receipts, old envelopes used years later for bookmarks. Hungering to know more about the people who once possessed them, we grasp these straws in hopes of conjuring images of our loved ones’ past.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a stack of such ephemera when working on something else. It was—thankfully—a small stack, but I was still surprised to find it. I had, a year ago, evidently set it aside to work on later, stumped as to where to file these items which appeared to be duplicates of others I’d already worked on.

The whole set was from my aunt’s papers. She’s been gone for over a year now. I had thought I had completely gone over her possessions and finished the sorting, filing and disposing.

Not so. Here were negatives of old photographs already in my possession—and likewise, duplicates of other photos which I had already scanned.

And then, there was a post card.

I turned the card over to read what was on the reverse of a panoramic view of the New York skyline. The note—sent back home to her parents at the end of June, likely at the start of this teacher’s summer vacation—didn’t say anything remarkable. The postmark had the year it was sent partially obliterated, though from the address I could likely guess when it was sent. The five cent postage offered another clue.

“Hi,” the note began, squeezed under the post card label explaining that the view was of “Lower Manhattan, New York City” in seven languages.

Flight to La Guardia was fine—no lunch, however. We are waiting for our helicopter to Kennedy. Then we eat. We looked for you on top. We couldn’t sit together, but across the aisle. Want to fill camera before we get to Kennedy.

Perfunctory message—almost as if my aunt breathed a sigh of relief as she crossed that duty off her list. From Kennedy International Airport, presumably, she and her unnamed companion were off to a European destination, her usual summertime adventure—although she did once head in the other direction and tour India.

Why anyone thought it important to save that card—honestly, the photo is in no way remarkable—I don’t know. But someone did, or I wouldn’t be telling you about it now.

While there isn’t much to glean from this slip of paper, that plus dozens more combined are what I’ve sifted through to find clues about my family’s past. It’s a tedious process, in one way, but a fascinating chase for family members who care to know. And that’s probably the key.

As we go back through the years, further into history, it becomes harder and harder to locate such ephemera. Torn movie tickets stuffed in a pocket of an old jacket still hanging in a deceased relative’s closet are one thing. We can catch such items before the “estate” is liquidated. But what about those three or more generations preceding that? We weren’t around for those opportunities to rescue such pieces from their fated place in the local landfill.

I think it is for such a reason that I value published genealogies and local histories of the 1800s and earlier. If any tokens of our ancestors’ existence have been preserved—at least in a discoverable form—it likely will be found in such collections of stories.

And yet, hoping to find what we are looking for in those compilations is like hoping to get one’s fill at a potluck dinner. Whatever the author—or the sources for his information—brings to the table becomes what is served up to the hopeful reader. Sometimes, that material yields wonderfully unexpected treasures. Sometimes, nary a name is mentioned—or worse, faulty information is passed down to the unsuspecting reader.

Yet, I couldn’t help but peek ahead, when reading the Ivey book on the Taliaferro ancestry. After finding such stories as this family’s connection to Georgia’s poet laureate, or the original Siamese twins, I was primed to find more. I know I will have to cross check everything I read with documentation, and that I will also consult with other published genealogies, but besides the convenient recounting of the genealogies, the “what happened next” aspect of the storytelling exerts a powerful component of its own. After all, it’s not what their names were, or when they were born, or how long they lived that’s most interesting to me. What I really want to know is: what were these people like?

If I have to resort to sifting through the contents of their pockets, or flipping through the stash of saved letters in their desk drawers, that’s what I’ll do. It’s these tokens of our ancestors’ lives that are sometimes the only things left to tell us the answer to the question we are really asking when we pursue our genealogy.


  1. My comment got lost.

    I was saying this view of the NYC skyline is pre- World Trade Center towers... which are now gone... much like many of the Ferry boats.

    1. Right...this long precedes the advent (and demise) of the World Trade Center. While I couldn't read the postmark, I think the postcard was sent in the 1960s, when my aunt did most of her travels outside the country.

  2. JFK was Idlewild before Dec. 1963 when it was renamed. I think your estimate of 1960's is good.

    1. Good point, Margie--using history as mile markers to help date family items. I had always had a hunch about when this might be, but the renaming of the airport certainly pinpoints it further.

  3. The 5 cent postage stamp for post cards was used between January 7, 1963 and January 7, 1968.

    1. Once again, the power of collaborative input! How these little details can make a difference. And since my aunt--a teacher--did her traveling in the summertime, that means the card was sent sometime between June, 1964 and August, 1967.


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