Today my dad came home from a trip to his hometown. He brought something back – a few dozen photographs, some loose and some in an album. Going by the clothing of the subjects and the style of the prints, I feel comfortable saying that none of the photographs are less than a century old.
At first I felt nothing but excitement as I examined each image, admiring the details of clothing and landscape. In a lot of ways I think these older photographs in their shades of black and white and sepia were more consistently flattering to their subjects than our color, high-resolution images. I laughed over the image of two teenage girls sitting on a lawn, noticing how one had her hand splayed over her face so the photographer wouldn’t see it – some things don’t change! I chuckled and smiled at the one of a solid little fellow not more than three or four, wearing a big hat, tiny feet poking out from under baggy denim overalls, and carrying a book under his arm.
Then I started to lay the loose images out on the table one by one. I started to hunt for physical resemblances to the family members I know on my dad’s side. I found myself looking each image in the eyes and studying their faces one by one.
I will be the first to admit that I have an active imagination. I know I romanticize.
As I sat and looked at the photographs laid out on the table, I suddenly felt like some of them were looking at me. Not in a creepy the-eyes-of-the-portrait-follow-me kind of way. I felt a combined sense of anticipation and resigned patience coming from those faces of unknown, long-gone relatives.
You see, most of the photographs are unlabeled.
A few have first names and what might be a partial date, but that’s it, and figuring that out depends on deciphering generations-old handwriting in German.
There is a spirited-looking young woman with dark hair named Luisa. There is a slightly sullen-looking young man named Willy in an army uniform with close-cropped hair. There is a teenage boy named Franz with severely parted and combed-down hair giving the distinct impression of a youth in between boy and man, wearing a proper grown-up suit for the first time. There is a middle-aged man in a mid-19th-century military uniform that is definitely European, and on the back is written in clear, beautiful script, “Karl Spangenberg.”
But most are unlabeled. There are older couples, young families, children, infants, teenagers, and a picture of a young couple in which the wife looks so young that I want to ease the ring off her finger, put her hair back in plaits, and send her back to high school.
When I look at them there is a feeling like someone holding their breath. I desperately want to give them back their names and place them on the right branches of the family tree, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t know of anyone old enough and present enough to be able to identify them, and I was never good at tracing subtle family resemblances.
So they are there, waiting and watching, half-resigned to an eternity of silent anonymity. And I look back at them, wishing I could at least call them by name.