I’m intrigued by old family photos – especially ones I haven’t seen before, especially if I’m in them!
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?
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.
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?
Recently, a cousin on the Clemmer side of the family sent me two slides of myself. Here I notice that my hair includes barrettes, 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.
Looking 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