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The Whitehurst Diaries: Faces Captured In Time
Most families have them. Boxes of family photos, old albums, with photos with only memory prodding documentation, great so long as the writer is around to narrate, but a great puzzle when they are gone. Click on headline for complete story with another picture of Faces Captured in Time
Article inspired by Looking for a WWII vet from Columbia: Findel Coomer now thought to be "Lindell" Coomer.
By Sharon Whitehurst
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 old 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. A bit homesick, lost for occupation in a place where gardening wasn't an option, I determined to compile 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 ancestry.com 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 and corrected, crossed out notes that proved incorrect. 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 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 g-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 had been in the upstate New York hamlet as long as had been my mother's people. "Cousin Bruce" had 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. She 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 skilled 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, is burdened with the sadness of our 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, never 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 parlor 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.
This story was posted on 2014-12-03 09:16:56
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