Aren't old family photos fun? Pictures of relatives from the past can put flesh and bones on the skeletons of otherwise dry, meaningless names. They can also bring back pleasant memories and reawaken our sense of belonging.
But they can also be all but meaningless if we don't know the identities of the subjects.
Yesterday, a patron came into the Museum's with a box of old photographs. She told a story about a close friend of her sister who had died somewhere in the Pacific Northwest without any known relatives. As the sister sorted through her friend's belongings, she came across a lovely framed picture of a woman dating from the 1930s. Alongside it was this box of old black-and-white prints.
I'm guessing that most of them were taken sometime during the 1950s, probably with one of those old Brownie cameras that looked like a matchbox on steroids.
Each of the pictures told a story. A man and woman pose in front of a shiny new car. A family flashes saccharine smiles at the camera. A toddler laughs as it takes what must have been one of its very first steps. It isn't difficult for me to imagine the memories that arose whenever the sister's friend got that box out of storage.
But all I can do is imagine, because neither the friend nor anyone else ever bothered to record the identities of the subjects or describe the occasions. Those of us who view these photographs today can only guess.
"This represents her entire life," said the patron with despair, sweeping her hand over the box. "It's so sad."
The story didn't need to end this way for the sister's friend, and it doesn't need to end like this for us. So here's a challenge: This weekend, reach up into your closet and take down those boxes of old photographs. Turn over each image and write lightly (in pencil) the names of the subjects. Then date it and briefly describe the occasion.
I'm willing to wager that this simple exercise will bring back a flood of memories, just as it could have done with the sister's friend. I'm also willing to wager that it will remind you of your roots and earn the undying gratitude of your children, grandchildren, and their children's children for a long time to come.