My mom used to love to rummage through old photographs in antique stores. Sometimes she’d bring home vintage portraits, stick them in equally vintage frames and hang them on our walls. She called them our “instant relatives.” It was kind of a joke, but as a kid I remember wondering if this meant we didn’t have enough real relatives.
Now that I’m grown, I have to admit that I’ve also taken to rummaging through old photographs in antique stores. What is the attraction? Perhaps I harbor hope that I’ll find pictures of my actual relatives mixed in with all the strangers. Or maybe I feel a vague responsibility to cherish these apparently forgotten forebears — even if they aren’t mine. Then again, perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that we’re all part of the human family, so I’m related to every person I come across. But lately, I suspect my primary motive is a compulsion to guess the stories behind the faded images. (This must be a fiction writer’s curse!)
Take these photographs, for instance. I found them glued together in an antique store in Redmond, Oregon. It was the week before the holidays — a time when families often hope to be together — and yet, here was a family that had obviously been apart. It seemed a little sad. What was their story?
Was the father away working? Based on his glad rags, maybe he toured with a barbershop quartet? How long had it been since he saw these children? Were they even his?
The children aren’t smiling and look uncomfortable in their “Sunday Best” — her hair bows are humungous; his tie is tiny and crooked. They aren’t in their natural element. And why is the boy in crisp focus and the girl a blur? Did she stubbornly refuse to stand still?
And the woman, she seems to have arrived in the picture at the last moment, squeezing in between the two children at a slant, her hair a little wind-blown, her open smile slightly informal for the situation. Is she their mother? Perhaps she’s a house-keeper/nanny who’d like to become their step-mother? Could these conjoined photographs be implying family connections that don’t yet exist — or acknowledging biological connections that have never been formally conjoined?
As you can see, one found image can be rife with possibilities. And the curious thing is, these seeming strangers may well be relatives whose story my family has forgotten. That being the case, this holiday season, I wish them and their descendants, warm wishes and a blessed New Year.
I looked into their faces one last time, returned the picture to a basket of sepia-toned photographs and exited the antique shop, pushing the creaking door against the winter wind.