Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Faces Captured In Time

Handwritten on the back is a date in the late 1890's, and the fact that the gentleman pictured was of an age to place his birthday circa 1840. 
He neglected to sign his name--surely the recipient of the photo knew him well.
The portrait was taken at a studio in the nearest 'city'  30 miles from my home town.

A youthful dandy, posed in his finest, hat at a jaunty angle.
The photo is undated, unsigned.
The young man's dark curling hair and square chin don't bring to mind any face I have known.

The background of hewn rock in this photo suggests a quarry.
Although no details are included, the man's stance, the set of his shoulders bears a resemblance to my  Uncle Bill.
I like to imagine that this is a photo of his grandfather for whom he was named, William "Bill" Lewis, whose family connections have proved so elusive.
We know that g-grandfather Lewis worked as a young man, barely out of his teens, on the construction of the Union-Pacific Railroad.
He returned to upstate New York where he worked as a foreman in the open pit graphite mines.

This portrait has a name inscribed on the back:
Harry Sisson.
I was able to discover that Harry was a contemporary of my grandmother, Helene, and that for a season or two he taught in one of the rural schools in her hometown.
Harry, who was raised in a neighboring village, became the head of household after the death of his parents, making a home for his siblings, as well as several nieces and nephews.
My inventive imagination toys with the possibility that perhaps Harry cherished a fondness for Helene.
He may well have boarded [as was the custom] with her family, one of the most prosperous in the district.

This photo poses a conundrum of a unique sort: I've never determined if the subject is a rather plain, heavy-featured woman--or a smooth-faced man.
My g-grandmother Eliza's name appears on the back, and a set of scribbled directions for various roads in the town which has been home to my mother's families for more than 200 years.
When I transcribed the directions for my Cousin Bruce, he astonished me by replying that the roads to be followed would lead from the village of Hague directly to the dooryard of the ancestral home!
Perhaps this was a member of Eliza's family.

Nearly every family at some time finds themselves in possession, by default, of a collection of lumpy photo albums, or vintage shoe boxes which when opened disgorge a tumble of shiny Kodak photos, scalloped edges crumbling, creases distorting a face or a landscape.

The first such album which I recall lived in the parlor cupboard of my grandfather's farmhouse--the house to which he had come upon his marriage, the newly purchased home of his wife's parents.

The album cover had gone soft with time, the lacing which held the black pages in place 
had come  loose.
A few pages had torn free, shedding the triangular 'corners' meant to secure the photos.

The cupboard shelf was high, meaning that I had to carry the piano stool to wedge inside the door and clamber up to pull down the album.

Rarely, I could interest Grampa Mac or my Uncle Bill in paging through the photos with me.
Some of the photos bore on their edges a scrawling handwriting which I was told belonged to my grandmother, Helene, who had died when my Mother was a few months short of her 10th birthday.
Her notations were brief, identifying persons and times.
A small boy, bundled to the ears in winter clothes, held on a sled by a white-moustached man who knelt in the deep snow beside him.
"Dad with Billy" was her caption.
Another, taken in nearly the same spot, barns in the background, shows my great grandfather with his hand resting against a shaggy dog: 
"Dad with Old Shep."

Other photos captured family gatherings--folks posed around an automobile of the early 1920's--the family assembled for a 4th of July picnic.
My mother at about 5 years old, hair clipped in a neat bob, clothed in a middy blouse and bloomers, her brother Bill in tweedy knickers and a tie.

My Grampa Mac seems not to have enjoyed photo ops--he is usually caught standing at the back of the group, looking anywhere but at the photographer--anxious perhaps to return to the farm chores of the day and be done with the fuss of company.
He looks at ease in a photo where he stands at the heads of his beloved team of work horses.

When my late Mother was a few years older than I am now, she spent a snow-bound January going through the old album, sorted photos from the jumbled piles in the boxes.
She brought out her own albums--the photos she and my Father had taken during their courtship and later as they built their home and recorded the special moments of their three daughters.
Dividing the  vintage photos according to our special interests and including those which marked such individual events as our graduations, weddings, our children as they arrived, she lovingly created a memory album for each of us.

Shortly there-after a cross-country move took Jim and me to the unfamiliar [and sometimes forbidding] landscape of Wyoming.  Feeling rather dislocated and with gardening not an option,  I determined to begin compiling a legacy of family history.

I remembered many of  the stories Grampa Mac loved to tell; I had been 'all ears' as a child whenever there was a family gathering of my Mother's aunts and uncles.  I had listened as she read aloud the letters from her cousins, who vividly shared the details of family life.

Most of them had passed away, and Mother's grip on day to day existence was slipping by the time I began to organize family lore.
I purchased a membership in and began plowing laboriously through the pages of the census, often stopping to boil a kettle and brew a mug of tea while my infinitely slow dial up connection loaded yet another image of cramped and faded script.

I filled pages of notebooks with information; amateur that I was, I often neglected to note sources.
I scribbled in margins, crossed out wrong information.
I wasted hours on peripheral searches that drew me down side roads and into the families that had lived alongside my own.

I typed up questionnaires, mailed them to Mother hoping she could fill in the blanks.
On a flying visit home she presented me with a box of vintage photos, many of them studio portraits.
Many of the faces looking back at me from the stiff cardboard folders were younger versions of those I had known and loved.
Some were faces which Mother couldn't identify.

I learned through my research that my great-great grandfather, dead in his 37th year, was buried with a gathering of his kinfolk in a small graveyard a few miles from the homes my Mother had 
known so well.
When questioned, she couldn't recall having gone to the cemetery, although she had many times accompanied her grandparents on visits back 'across the lake' to the family stronghold.
Before her death she bequeathed yet more photos to my Nephew the History Teacher--the one who will carry on the love for family research.

Through the marvel of the internet I connected with a courtesy "cousin" whose families have been in the upstate New York hamlet as long as had been my mother's people.
"Cousin Bruce" has years of research published on his web pages and a fingertip away in his 
PC files.
Our emails flew back and forth.
I had progressed from wanting merely to share stories to a deep interest in the facts and vital statistics of generations past.
Cousin Bruce put me in touch with my own second cousin, a woman who shares my passion for family lore.
Barbara has her grandmother's scrapbooks--photos and clippings, a wealth of details.
Together we puzzle over the album of 'miniatures'--tiny formal cameos of bearded men in high collars, women in bustled gowns.
We can name less than half a dozen of those who must be of our blood or of our great-great grandparent's circle of friends.

I delight in the copies of old photos which have been shared with me.
Before her death last year my Dad's younger sister passed along photos I didn't know existed.
Her son, Cousin Tom, scanned and shared them along with his mother's surprisingly accurate family details. Tom typed notes scribbled down as Aunt Liz related stories of youthful escapades--giving me a view of my Dad's childhood which he had never shared. "Here's the outline," Tom would message, "You write the story."
Aunt Liz was into her 90's before I unearthed the family background hinted at by her notes, made more difficult as I struggled to decipher French Canadian names phonetically spelled on birth and death certificates and census listings. 
A lively correspondence began with a 'cousin' on my father's side--one who has been a leader in her local genealogical society.
Cousin Pat is also a gifted story-teller.

We hit 'brick walls', those of us who become entranced with family history.
We shuffle through the unidentified photos, we puzzle over a generation that seemingly 'disappears' from record.
Sometimes there are those 'eureka' moments: the scrap of information, the missing fact which suddenly makes sense and connects the dots.

As more archival hometown newspapers are digitized and published on the internet, the available resources expand.
Some photos shared , some information discovered come burdened with fore-knowledge.

I gaze at the family portrait of my maternal great-grandparents with a pang.
In it my grandmother, Helene, stands beside her father's chair, her hand on his sleeve. My slender great-grandmother, Minnie Jane, holds on her lap their son, Lawrence. The full skirt of her foulard printed gown is rumpled as though toddler Lawrence had squirmed at being held.
Minnie Jane was likely already a few weeks pregnant with her third child. She would die in childbirth on her 26th birthday within that year.

Lawrence would meet death in the Second Battle of the Marne, never returning home to wed his financee, to pick up his fiddle and make music.
Helene, the grandmother I never knew, would die of leukemia at age 44.

My home state of Vermont several years ago made available to ancestry members digitized images of vital stats from the mid 1800's to within a few years of the present.
Hours of trawling through them confirmed the six stillbirths endured by my paternal grandmother and the loss of her two younger brothers, a sister, and a beloved sister-in-law during the flu epidemic of 1918.
If my father knew of these sad facts, he chose not to speak of them.

There have been delightful finds as well: the description of Grampa Mac and Helene's wedding--so detailed that I can visualize the familiar dining room and the parlour of the old farmhouse dressed with 'choice plants' for the occasion.
The same newspaper archives have yielded in their local columns the details of church gatherings, school outings, road building, weather and farm reports, all sprinkled with names I recognize.

Often after hours of peering at the screen, scribbling notes, I return to the present in a daze, suddenly realizing that I need to prepare a meal or fetch the wash in from the clothesline.

I look with interest at the photos which others post, whether in the local online gazette or on a favorite blog; I want to learn more about the young soldier in his stiff uniform, or the elderly couple seated in the porch swing, the children straggling in untidy lines in front of the one room schoolhouse.
Photos and tidbits of information continue to come to me, sometimes shared from surprising sources--shared by those who recognize the value of heritage, those who also want names to match the faces captured on film in some long ago moment.


  1. Some splendid old portraits here. I wonder how many i-Phone selfie's will survive a century or more - and, if they do, what an oafish and silly lot we'll look to our descendants!

  2. What a wonderful post Sharon, and it encapsulates all I feel about family history too - the faded sepia photos of "someone" known to my forebears, my gran and her sister in the garden with the bottom and tail of a dog just going out of the photo (what was he called I wonder?), the skinny old "geezer" with the bottlebrush moustache and fierce gaze beside my grandad and the rest of the family - who on earth WAS he? I still yearn to find out, but probably never will.

    It is a fascinating and absorbing hobby and in the cold winter months quite often captures many hours of my time. I haven't had more than a very temporary membership of Ancestry before, but intend to have a longer one in the New Year. Having access to newspapers in a recent trial on a similar site has opened up all sorts of opportunities for armchair browsing. Too good to be missed in fact!

  3. P.S. I am so familiar with some members of your family (Lawrence's story for instance) they feel like a branch of my own . . .

  4. Your post reminds me so of the years I spent tracking down family and the wonderful correspondence I had with second, third and fourth cousins - like you the people who lived in that community in Ontario where my great-great grandparents settled as Loyalists seemed almost as real to me as the people in my own town. I was fascinated with the birth and death and marriage records and how the families were intertwined. A wonderful connection with the past.

  5. Scrolling thru Facebook saw a post with Morning Minion's noted! What a beautiful visit to your site, as usual, with a warm cup of tea on a cloudy, chilly Massachusetts afternoon! What? My name .... wish we could visit and share in that lovely Amish homestead!!!! I'd love to have or make copies if any of those pics are from MY side of your family!!! Merry Christmas ... Cousin Pat