Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

“We all grow up with the weight of history on us.  Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.” 
            ~ Shirley Abbot

“Families Are Forever.”  Said the sign posted over our entire wall of framed family photos.  Parents.  Grandparents.  Great grandparents.   My entire family tree smiled down on me from their wooden frames.  No matter where my family moved this collection came with us.  From city to city, state to state, these portraits were wrapped in newspaper and placed snugly into boxes with each and every move.  Whenever we arrived in our new home they were among the first to be unpacked.  Mom was of the opinion that a new house never feels like home until our pictures hang from the walls. 

Certain photographs stood out more than others.  There was one of a handsome young man in uniform with a strong chin and amiable smile that attracted my attention.  He was my Grandpa Gale.  I never met him.  My dad doesn’t even remember meeting him.  He died in a plane accident during air practice when my dad was only a few months old.   I spent a lot of time looking at this photograph as a little girl.  I used to fantasize that he was a war hero who spiraled to his death in a burst of flame and glory fighting our nation’s enemies.  I delighted showing my friends his picture when they came to our house and bragging,

 “That’s my grandpa. 
He was a pilot. 
He died.” 

But Grandpa Gale was more than a mere a heroic figure used to impress my friends.  I used to take his picture into my bedroom, sit on the bed, and trace the contours of his face with my fingers.  There was even a time when I thought, “If there was a fire, and I could only save one thing, I would save this picture.” I felt an enormous sense of love and admiration for this man.  He was brave.  He was kind.  He looked like my father.  I took great pride knowing that his genes flowed through my veins.

These photographs are my connection to the past.  They are my roots.  My Grandma Ann compiled several books devoted to the lives our ancestors complete with photographs and stories.  I grew up reading about how my great, great, great grandfather, who came from a wealthy family in Wales,  married beneath his station to a dairymaid.  I read about my polygamist great great grandfather and his two wives.  I read about how my great grandfather met my great grandmother and fell in love in El Paso.  While the stories were intriguing, it was the pictures that gave me a glimpse of who they truly were. 

One of the best compliments I ever received was that I look the most like my Great Aunt Judy out of everyone in the entire Edwards family.  I never met Aunt Judy.  My only memory of her is a vague recollection of her funeral, but I knew her through photographs in our family history books.  I thought she was one of most beautiful women I had ever seen.  I could tell she was very stylish.  Very classy. I feel an unexplained kinship with this mysterious beautiful woman I’ve never met.

I’ve poured over thousands of family photographs.  My Grandpa Heninger playing baseball in the army.  My Grandpa Farrell standing beside his faithful dog Putter.  My Grandma Jane wearing rolled up slacks and a cowgirl hat.   My Grandma Ann laying on the beach in her bathing suit staring squinty eyed at camera.  They are all so young.  So beautiful.  So full of life that you almost expect them to spring from the paper.  I love them for who they were.  I love them for who they are.   I love them because they're family.


  1. So true, Heather, and such a lovely sentiment. I always wish I'd gotten to know my grandparents better. By the time I knew them, they were grandma and grandpa, but they had whole lives before that when they were young and full of dreams and ambitions and did all sorts of interesting things, and I would have liked to have a chance to know them as people.

    1. It's hard to imagine grandparents outside of their kindly, elderly persona. That's what I love about old photographs! It helps your imagination out.