#42 – Reading Old Family Photos

I’m intrigued by old family photos – especially ones I haven’t seen before, especially if I’m in them!

H. Leh & Company photo

I cherish all available pictures of myself as a baby, toddler or young girl.  My parents relied on photography studios, and seemingly took few if any candid shots themselves.

So I’m fortunate that cousins on both sides of the family have been going through old slides and photos, and occasionally send one that includes me.

These days I’m curious about little Susan. Who was she, anyway? How did she make her way in the world as the only child in the household? What habits did she adopt which prefigured mine 60+ years later? What childhood tendencies  did she mercifully discard along the way?

I approach each new-to-me photo with curiosity, even excitement. What can I “read” in it (or perhaps “read into” it)? What new things can I learn or old impressions reinforce about this little girl and her environment?

Helen (left) and Susan

A number of photos document holiday dinners with my mother’s Derstine clan over the years.  The one on the left I’ve treasured for years – my cousin Helen and I holding our Christmas presents, looking startled. Perhaps that was the year we ripped open other people’s presents, desperate to find our own (See blog #3).

Fast forward five years or so, and we see Helen and Susan smiling broadly –  almost laughing – behind a whole pile of still- wrapped presents. Perhaps this documents some growing maturity on their part!  Some of the younger Godshall and Clemmer children aren’t quite so sure that’s appropriate.

Sue with presents as child
Derstine Christmas 1950s, L-R Helen Godshall, Gerry Godshall, Ken Clemmer, Susan Clemmer, Karen Clemmer

Another photo from a Derstine Christmas, acquired in the last couple years, intrigues me for a number of reasons. First of all, take a look at that wallpaper! Also, it appears that  my Mom and I are negotiating.  I wonder what that’s about!  And I can’t believe my bright orange knee socks. Perhaps the colour isn’t true?

Sue Clemmer and Martha Clemmer
Mom and Susan

Recently, a cousin on  the Clemmer side of the family sent me two slides of myself. Here I notice that my hair includes img011barrettes, as well as large ribbons at the end of my pigtails. I noticed the same hair decoration in the studio photo of myself. I wonder if that’s how all the little Mennonite girls in the Souderton area looked, or if it was my mother’s preference – or perhaps even mine?   I also wonder about the expression on my face.  Am I squinting at the sun?  Or unhappy about something?  My usual shining brown eyes are almost shut.

The other slide demonstrates a reality of my childhood – often I was the only young child in a group of adults. I’m fascinated by the variations in the dress code for females played out here. On a summer day,  my Aunt Esther – a preacher’s wife – has covering strings and is wearing a cape dress with long sleeves.  My Mom has no covering strings and is wearing a modified cape dress with 3/4 length sleeves. My sister-in-law Ethel is wearing a covering and a dress with ¾ sleeves (made of a sheer fabric). And there is Susan with arms nearly bare and those barrettes and ribbons in her hair.

img012Looking at this photo makes me feel included – those women are my family! – and at the same time a bit lonely, as the only child in the picture….

Question for Reflection:

What have you observed or wondered about your childhood self and the context of your early life by looking at old family pictures?

Next week: Keeping a Journal

2 thoughts on “#42 – Reading Old Family Photos

  1. Interesting what thoughts and questions about our past can bring up about ourselves both then and now. I once did a prayerful life review of the various time periods of my earlier life and was amazed at the healing and insight I was given. Thanks for reminding me.

    Muriel Bechtel
    515 Langs Dr., Unit J,
    Cambridge, ON
    N3H 5E4
    Home telephone: 519-219-3344
    Cellphone: 226-338-6915

    Every sunrise brings the promise of a new beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought I was the only person who did that, Sue. Some years back I found a picture of our family, obviously taken by a professional, but taken in our home. I am on one end, on the arm of the chair in which my father was sitting — I guess I was seven at the time. My mother and three siblings are looking solemnly at the camera, while I have a little head-cocked smile, much as the cat who ate the canary might look. My father has a small smile on his face — the only time in any photo I’ve seen of him that he has anything resembling a smile. I would love to know what had happened just before the picture was taken!


    Liked by 1 person

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