This woman’s face drifted up to me this week. She came out of a pile of photos, a randomly selected card in a shuffled deck of memories. It has been some days, but I keep going back to her although — and maybe because — I have no idea who she is.
I see the arc of worry in her brows. We’ve all been caught in that before second, calling, “Don’t take the picture yet — ” Is that the moment? Or is this her everyday face? Who might she be looking at? Or thinking of?
Her very anonymity reminds me that you can get a request answered by the universe — and not answered at all, at the same time.
I was looking at her in New Jersey, which I came to via Brooklyn. I never imagined I’d visit Brooklyn, but I have now been there three times. I was looking at her in my cousin’s home, which I also never imagined I’d visit, but now have been there twice.
It’s all so unlikely.
Brooklyn is at the heart of my proudest genealogy work. It was the home of one of my great-grandmothers, along with a nebula of family around her, and yet no one in my family had detailed this branch of our tree. Our Brooklyn history has been mine to explore.
Starting with that grandmother’s name and her obituary, I’ve been able to fill out her branch with several dozen names. I take a personal pride in each of them. I like to think of my work adding colors to the family spectrum.
However, while I collected their names and learned the paths of their lives, I didn’t have their faces. I had fewer than 10 pictures of anyone from the Brooklynites. If only there were a pile of pictures somewhere, I would think. If only I could see some photos.
It turns out, there are photos.
In a very roundabout way, those Brooklyn people led me to the cousin in New Jersey, and he does indeed have photos. He is the keeper of pictures, letters, and ephemera connected to four different family branches.
It’s a mixed blessing.
To imagine a giant pile of photos and letters is a fun thing, and I would never discount it as an irreplaceable family treasure. But to actually sit among it, to try to UN-sort hundreds of bits and pieces that have mingled for decades, is another thing entirely.
“Joy” is not the first word that comes to mind. It is, at best, daunting; at worst, submerging.
More complications: I had happily imagined a pile of photos. I didn’t bother thinking about what might be on the back of them. I did not imagine hundreds of photos without names or dates, which is what he has.
At last, I can see my people. I can come face to face with them. And in many cases, I have no idea who they are.
My cousin and I did our best. We played that familiar game, trying to match photos across decades. Did this baby become that adult? Is that young man the same as this old man? We looked so hard at those pictures, trying to forge links with our minds, really.
And how much harder this work is when you’re related to the subject. My recent research has been on people who aren’t my family. In those cases, distance is easy to maintain. But when it’s your own people, a handwritten letter reminds you of a birthday card. You see a smile and your brain plays the laugh. Even a dimple becomes an heirloom, passed down through decades.
It doesn’t take long to feel submerged. Your heart reaches for those people, because they are right there, and yet the reach is never met. Waves of time and distance fill in over your head. Eventually, you have to take a break. You laugh about how draining it is, just sitting and looking at pictures. You need some air.
Is the woman above related to me? I don’t know. I may never know.
For now, I can only muse on the improbability of it all. Sometime in the 1890s, a woman in New Jersey (or New York, or maybe somewhere else altogether) stared into a glossy black lens and smiled too soon. Her photo was so familiar, no one bothered to write her name on the back. At some point it went into a box. And 125 years later, I held it in the upper room of a cousin’s house on a summer day.
I looked her in the face and thought: Do I know you? ☗
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