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Family Photos


A cousin recently sent me some family photographs. Seven of them were taken in her parents' basement family room in 1960, likely on the occasion of my maternal grandparents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Her father was their oldest child, my mother their second child, and two more uncles followed. My cousin was the youngest of three daughters; I was the oldest of all the grandchildren. The second uncle and his wife had two boys and two girls, the youngest boy the same age as my brother. The youngest uncle by then had been divorced and his two children no longer lived in our state; he and his third wife had yet to have their first child. Four of the photographs highlight individual families, another pictures the four siblings behind their parents, and another displays my grandparents and ten of their grandchildren. My grandmother's younger sister and her husband, a childless couple, also appear in a photograph.


In that photo of grandparents and grandchildren my brother and sister surround my oldest uncle's oldest two daughters in the back row; three of the second uncle's children are in the middle row; and the three youngest grandchildren—my adopted sister, one uncle's youngest son, and another uncle's youngest daughter, the one who sent me the photos—share the front row with their grandparents. The only grandchildren missing are those two living elsewhere and me, who graduated from high school that year and was on a road trip to California and Mexico with a high school friend.


I've opened and reopened those photos several times by now. Even at the first viewing I could identify by name every one of the people pictured. My grandmother would have been sixty on that occasion, my grandfather sixty-five. I especially like the picture of my mother and her brothers standing behind them—I can't recall ever seeing a similar photo. Unsurprisingly, my mother is the only one speaking while everyone else simply smiles cheerfully. In all the pictures, except for some closed eyes or distracted glances, almost everyone appears pleasantly genial.


I can't help reopening and enlarging the photo of my family. It's not ideal—my smiling mother's eyes are partially closed, my sister seems solemn, perhaps pretending to hide annoyance, my brother is pleasant and cheerful, my father looks weary but cooperative though his shins are showing, and my young adopted sister hunches down between my parents with a jolly, mischievous look. The photo likely captures the moment.


The images remind me of three photos from a family reunion ten years earlier, grouping people by generation or gender. Some children in the anniversary photos were then unborn. In the children's picture, my sister and I are surrounded by older grandchildren of more distant relatives and stand squinting at the photographer; two of my oldest uncle's daughters sit at our feet, the younger one bawling, the older one pretending not to notice. In the men's picture, below a crowded standing row, my father sits on the lawn gazing toward my young brother on his lap, my grandfather crouches near them, seemingly disinterested, and neither notices the photographer. In the women's picture, my mother kneels on the ground before five standing women, two of them her sisters-in-law, and looks solemnly away. These pictures often suggest relationships.


Sixty to seventy years have gone by since these pictures were taken. Much has happened in these families. Some of my cousins are parents and grandparents by now, their own photographic records probably extensive. Like me, many of them left our hometown for new lives elsewhere. The longer I look at their images the more I remember how many of them are no longer living. My grandparents, grand-aunt and grand-uncle are gone, my uncles are gone, an aunt is gone. Two cousins are gone. My parents are gone. My sister is gone. My brother is gone. Out of twenty-two people in those seven photos, fourteen are gone. Only eight are now alive in this new century, two aunts and six younger cousins. I know little of how their family histories continue.


Sue and I have been married almost forty years. This summer we expect to gather with Sue's siblings, their children and grandchildren and our children and grandchildren. We'll hope to take photos like those my cousin sent me, pictures of everyone in family groups and generation groups. I could send copies to all of those relatives so they could pass them on to their own descendants forty years later to give them the chance to think about who preceded them and possibly who is following them. Perhaps some of those grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) will want to record where everyone is right then, so that their own grandchildren will be able to consider it someday. They might like to know.

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