Saturday, October 29, 2022

Fond Memories of Someone I Never Met


Today I want to share a story of a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. For those of us who grew up in the sixties, I realize the topic of mothers-in-law became the era's target for a wide range of public commentary, hardly any of which was flattering or even politely understated. Thus, any time I run across a story of a daughter-in-law nurturing a positive, ongoing relationship with her mother-in-law, I know I'm making the acquaintance of some special people.

Last week, I received an email from such a daughter-in-law. But before I can tell you about that, I need to step backwards nearly five years to a blog post here at A Family Tapestry, introducing the subject of an abandoned photograph of someone I called "The Man With the Moustache."

I had found the 1880s era cabinet card featuring the likeness of a resident of Walnut, Kansas, named John Blain in an antique store not far from my home in California. Someone, I reasoned, would like to be reunited with the photograph of this ancestor, so I began researching the history of John Blain. As it turns out, his was not a happy story, for tragedy left his wife a widow with four young children when John was only forty four.

Eventually, John's family left Kansas for California, where his children grew up, married, and had families of their own. I knew that, because my goal in reuniting this "orphan" photo with the Blain family's descendants meant I needed to research his family line. It wasn't long before I found a subscriber on who turned out to be a diligent researcher of the Blain family. I sent her a note through Ancestry's messaging system, offering to send her the photograph of a young John Blain. I received an immediate reply: "As I read your message I got chills down my spine...."

My correspondent, though not a direct descendant, was daughter-in-law to Helen, John Blain's granddaughter. Now well into her nineties, Helen had never met John Blain, herself—her mother was only about four at the time of John's tragic death—but her daughter-in-law was positive Helen would remember his story. 

Helen's daughter-in-law had a plan. Since Christmas was approaching, and Helen was traveling to spend the holidays with this daughter-in-law's family, I would quickly mail the photograph so the family could present it as a special surprise gift to Helen.

The minute Helen saw the picture, her daughter-in-law told me, "The first words out of her mouth were, 'That's my grandfather!' She knew right away."

With that post-holiday exchange of emails about that unusual Christmas present, Helen's daughter-in-law sent me a photograph of Helen, holding her gift. While the photo was a wonderful way to illustrate the full-circle journey of an abandoned family portrait, I am always shy to share information on living people without their explicit permission. In this case, arranging such a written release might have been complicated, and so I left the story with a final post, calling it "On its Way Home."

This Christmas season will mark five years since that exchange, as I mailed off the photo on December 20, 2017. Thus I was somewhat surprised to see a familiar name pop up in my in-box the other day, asking if I remembered sending the photo of John Blain to Helen, and whether I still had the picture her daughter-in-law had sent me, showing a smiling Helen holding her grandfather's portrait.

This is the kind of poignant email which can be hard to receive. Granted, I never met Helen. But I still felt like I shared a small—incredibly tiny—part of her life through that recovered picture of John Cunningham Blain. When her daughter-in-law wrote to give me permission to use Helen's photo, I knew what was coming next in that email: the family had just lost a beloved mother, grandmother, and, yes, mother-in-law.

Rest in peace, dear Helen. What a story your family had to share.

Above: Photograph of Helen holding picture of her grandfather, John Cunningham Blain, given by her daughter-in-law on Christmas, 2017; photograph used by family's permission.



  1. My husband and I are so touched by your writing and so grateful for your work. This story is so beautiful and I appreciate your diligence in locating our family so that we could revisit the story of John Cunningham Blain. Your work is a gift. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Theresa. You have been an inspiration for me to continue rescuing those orphan photographs!


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