It is always an eerie feeling to "meet" family members we never knew we had. This week, viewing a family member's disposed-of photograph collection in a local antique shop became my chance to do just that: stare at the faces of people whose stories I knew, but whose acquaintance I had never made.
I don't know about you, but as much as I research family lines, I end up carrying around a rough sketch of each family's pedigree in my head. I can't guarantee that memory is an accurate one, just a working one. And that was a good thing this week, considering I had no clue what I was about to discover when I followed up on something a local high school student had told me: there were dozens of family photographs I needed to see at a certain antique store in town.
Sure enough, as I mentioned yesterday, there were indeed probably close on to one hundred photographs to sort through. Fortunately, many of them were labeled. The next step meant I would have to accurately recall just how each name fit into the family tree. Of course, everyone in this family line is now long gone, so there was no one to answer questions with a quick phone call. All I could remember was the stories my mother-in-law told me, years ago when I tried researching her family line.
Granted, her story was somewhat different from the norm. This made research a bit more challenging during those pre-Internet years, but not impossible. At least I could catalog the stories—stories like how the Sowle family arrived in southern California, instead of staying close to home in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Or stories about how so many members of this family in California died within a short period of time, leaving the rest reeling from the continual devastation. Those stories one doesn't forget.
There was one thing, though: I had no way to fill in the blanks between each sad story. No connector. No life-as-usual between tragedies. I realized, as I flipped through the photos this week, I needed to go back and sketch in the details on name after name. After all, photos are usually a token of the happy times a family shared. Hence, the impromptu project squeezed into the end of this month.
As we go through the photos together next week, I'll take a walk through the generations to help connect the dots. We'll start with the woman whose steady handwriting was the key that connected so many of the photos with names, dates, and details: Marilyn Sowle Bean. The easy next step is to flip through some newspaper articles about her parents' early years that led to their move to California. Then the most helpful step, as I puzzle over whether I should go back and retrieve more of those photos—I left several behind at the antique store—is to weave the family lines together to connect unknown names like "Aunt Jo" or "Art and Shirley" to Marilyn's story. These are the unknowns among Marilyn's family members who still have me stumped.
One thing I realized as I flipped through all those photos: while I may no longer need to own those pictures, I can be fairly sure there is some descendant out there who would love to have a copy. And that alone makes an excellent reason to share the stories and photos of people who have long since left us behind. Hopefully, passing along the word, someone else may stumble upon these posts and find just the photo they were seeking.