, , , , , , , , ,

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. IMG_2725

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 unlaIMG_2724beled. 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.