“Photography takes and instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” – Dorothea Lang
We see photos all the time. Nowadays, they’re mostly on our phones. We slide left or right, post to social media, send to friends and family, store in the cloud…but how often do we actually look at photographs anymore? Not the snapshot of your morning coffee, or Jared’s pic from lunch, but the photographs that hang on the walls of our family members?
I remember my parents having very few photos on our walls growing up. The first place we lived at there was always our school photos and maybe a few photos of cousins, but when we moved they all disappeared, put into boxes and drawers. But my grandparents’ homes, that’s where I remember seeing photos. Pictures of family members, buildings, events; stories from a time pre-me.
The mind is a funny thing. When I think of the place where my Nana lived, I picture the house her and my grandfather lived in when I was in grammar school, but when I think of the Wall of Photos, it’s the hall in their apartment years later that comes to mind.
In Nana’s apartment there was a long hallway. I have some memories to running up and down this hallway at three-year-old breakneck speed as my parents lived in the same apartment long before Nana and Grandpa lived there. As Nana’s hallway, though, it held a different fascination. I was no longer concerned with how fast I could rush down it, but just how far down the hallway I could make it. You see, that hallway led to the bedrooms, which was Sacred Ground and none of the grandkids were allowed into, and by proxy, the hallway was somewhat off limits, or at least that’s how it felt growing up. That hallway was a temptation. Between the two walls of paneling was a portal to an era I barely knew: the Time Before Me.
Photos of my nine aunts and uncles echoed down through. There were senior photos of some of my aunts and uncles, but not all. (I remember wondering if this was Nana’s way of playing favorites, a subtle hint to when one of her children displeased her, but I don’t recall the photos ever being rearranged.) There were a few family photos, staged before the town gazebo which was so small that it was concealed behind my father’s large family. Still others were of great-aunts and -uncles who I never knew.
The photos hung at Nana’s house – and the ones in frames hidden among the knicknacks – seemed like little shrines. There were things too sacred for anyone as young an inexpereinced with the world such as myself to ask about. It was a bold contrast to the pictures at Grammy’s.
I don’t recall visiting my Grammy and Grampy, my mother’s parents, much growing up. They lived a couple hours drive from us and my childhood took place at a time where up and driving two hours for a visit would have meant either a very late night back or staying the weekend, neither of which were options for our family due to my parents’ business. However, I was ecstatic when they moved into the same town as us, and even more excited when they eventually moved into an apartment on the road right behind us. My brother and I could go visit them and my mom could literally call down the hill to let us know it was time to come home for lunch. Grammy always had treats in the house – aside from Grampy’s licorice jelly beans that I always mistook for the colorful, far superior fruity flavored ones, much to his glee – and entering their living room was like entering into a living, breathing family tree.
Photos of cousins who I recognized were displayed on one wall. Another held the graduation photos of my mother, her older sister, and her younger sister and brother. (Those four photos were an interesting variety of styles as mom and her older sister graduated in late 1970s/early ’80s, her brother in the late ’80s, and her youngest sister in the mid-’90s. It was like a timeline.) Above the entertainment center, which was mixed shrine of gifts from family members and Red Sox paraphernalia, were two photo collages that I hope will never fade from my memory.
One photo collage was of more recent photos. It was easy to pick out Grammy, as she hadn’t really changed in the decade or less that many of the pictures were taken. Unlike at Nana’s, these pictures looked like conversation starters, and that they were. Names, places, stories of family reunions, who was mad at who at who and for why and how long, and where people were living, the names of their children, and what they did for work would all just start rolling off my Grammy’s tongue. The stories of people I never met would fascinate me in a way I don’t think she ever knew. I loved hearing about her side of the family, who seemed so alive that collage.
The other collage. What a contrast. All the photos in that one, at least that my memory recalls, were black and white. They looked like secrets. I would ask about the pictures and be told what they were. One was of my Grampy and his brother in the army in Germany during Korea. Another of them as kids with my great-grandfather. There was one of my great-grandmother as well. The photo of the homestead in Nova Scotia has always intrigued me. Unlike asking about Grammy’s collage, which started a fountain of stories, asking about these only brought answers sufficient enough to answer the question at surface value. It only whetted the appetite for the stories behind the photos. That’s when I started getting interested in history.
Who were these people in the photos with the untold stories? Where did they come from? Why did some of them seem so sad, dejected in a way, like the world simply wasn’t meant for them? What about past those photos? How did those photos come to be – what life events spurred my grandfather into the army, for his father to leave Nova Scotia?
Photos trigger emotions – fear, sadness, joy. They also trigger our curiosity. If it hadn’t been for the snapshots of the past that adorned my most recent ancestors walls, I might never has started hunting down those that came before me. These glimpses of everyday life whetted my appetite for the stories behind them. Even now I love coming across photos of family members that I have never seen before. It keeps that spark of wanting to learn more alive.