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.
When I was little, I went to an elementary school that was pretty diverse. It’s actually MORE diverse now – something like 20 languages represented – but it was pretty diverse when I went there.
Once a year, we had a special day called International Day. There were performances of music and dance from around the world, and parents representing different home cultures gave presentations to the classes on where they came from. I remember the Japanese and Indian parents always looked nicest in their outfits, but the Persian moms had the best treats. Students and staff were encouraged to wear outfits representing their heritage, from traditional ethnic costumes to the librarian’s dress made to look like she was wearing a giant Union Jack.
My brother and I didn’t have traditional outfits on hand, and it would have been hard to choose which of our ancestral branches to represent, so our mother made us t-shirts that looked roughly like this:
It was a cute t-shirt, a creative idea, and it got the point across – we are Northern European mutts.
As it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated.
This year for my birthday, my parents gave me six months’ access to ancestry.com. From what I’ve found so far, the t-shirt should have been modified a little…
Mom’s side should include:
Dad’s side should include:
A while ago, I posted about organizing my grandmother’s papers. I’m still working on that, and on some other related things. Collectively they’re all going to be a part of a larger project I’m working on in my self-appointed role of family archivist.
I’ve avoided posting about my most recent efforts because I wanted them to be a Christmas surprise for the family, but now that Christmas is past and the surprise has been revealed, I can write about it here.
In 1980, my maternal grandmother embarked on a project to interview her husband on tape about his early years in Odessa before, during, and shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In 2006, we got those audio tapes remastered and burned on CD. There are seven focused on my grandfather and one focused on the elder of his two sisters, who was about four years his junior.
The interviews are by no means professional. Crosstalk is rampant, and there’s an entire disc of Grandma reading sections aloud from a missionary’s account of a visit to Odessa in 1911 and asking Grandpa if he remembers X or agrees with Y. She gets stuck in what I call “thought eddies,” and like those water phenomena, circles around a particular topic for a while until something bumps her loose. She had a highly romanticized idea of the final Tsarist years, and seems to have had trouble when Grandpa’s recollections didn’t match her picture.
That said, it’s an amazing historical document, both for our family records and potentially for researchers. It’s a child’s memory of middle-class life in Odessa before WWI and before the revolution, which means everyday details. While Grandma might have had some romanticized notions about that world, she does get details out of Grandpa that are remarkable. He describes the cobblestones in the streets, the summers spent outside the city, and what the peddlers in the streets were like. He speaks about the docks in Odessa, and going with his friends to buy watermelons straight from the ships only to sit down and eat the fruit right there. He tells stories about his schools, his classmates and teachers, the subjects he studied, and how shy he was in class. He describes going to the candy factory his father managed, and watching the women who wrapped each chocolate by hand.
As the discs progress, the world in which he lived changes from the golden childhood years before the war to the growing fear and unrest between 1914 and 1917, and then he speaks of the post-revolution world in which they all found themselves. I could wish for more details of the revolutionary period itself, but I recognize that some subjects can be too difficult to revisit. It’s also possible that he didn’t remember much. He was only twelve when the revolution took place, after all. In the recording there are many points at which he claims he doesn’t remember, and I have no way of knowing which are real and which are shying away from memories that are too difficult. At times it also seems as though my grandmother, the primary interviewer, also shies away from subjects that are too dark or too emotional, instead of pressing for answers.
It’s been nearly 35 years and both are long gone now, so the recordings are what they are.
What I’m doing, though, is creating a proper oral history document for these remarkable stories. I know there are probably tens of thousands – if not more – stories like this out there, but somehow it’s different when there are relatives involved, and the details are impressive. With microhistory becoming more popular, though, firsthand accounts with this level of detail are important.
Anyway. My Christmas surprise was a transcription of the seven discs featuring my grandfather. It ended up at 140 pages, which is incidentally the longest document I’ve ever typed. I now have greater respect for those who do NaNoWriMo! I’m not done, though. I still need to transcribe the disc of my great-aunt Jeanne, I’ve got to index the whole thing, write abstracts and biographical summaries, and figure out the complicated copyright problem of who actually owns these interviews, given three of the four participants have passed on. One of the challenges in transcription I’m still facing is the geographical issues of the Soviet Union – my grandfather uses Russian names for places that are about a century old, and one of the frustrating things about the whole Soviet period is the fact that many places changed names, some more than once.
It’s a fascinating project, and it’s nice to put my professional skills to use during this seemingly endless unemployment period. Eventually it’d be nice to have a full finding aid for my grandmother’s letters alongside this oral history document. And it’s got me wanting to sit down with pretty much all of my relatives to get THEM on tape!
I should probably finish with this one first, huh?