Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Window to the Past

Are you a stranger without even a name,
Enclosed and forgotten behind the glass frame,
In an old photograph, torn and battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?
-- Eric Bogie




Once when I was a child, I laid down my mother’s long wardrobe mirror on the floor and stared into it to find another world. The ceiling was the floor in this world and everything was a mirror image of reality. I so wanted to step into that world and explore the odd dimensions of it. To me, old photographs are also like staring into another world, they are a window to the past.

I’ve written before about old photographs and my work with them. They played a prominent role early on in my family history quest. I would sit down with a box of old photographs and quiz my grandfather on each of the images. He was in his 90s at the time. I remember showing one photograph of a gentleman and his family to my grandfather and having him lean in close and whispered, “He was a bastard.” Gee, I thought, I guess my grandfather didn’t really care for this man. Turns out what he was whispering was the truth, the man had been born out of wedlock and was indeed labeled a bastard. Even my grandfather had lived in a different world where such things spoken of in hushed tones.

Some of the photographs in the box however, were older than even my grandfather’s and so I turned to other means to help identify them. One book I found on identifying old photographs was Lenore Frost’s (see my bibliography on identifying old photographs here). The author emphasized working with the album as a whole for identification clues. Over this summer, a couple of encounters with old photo albums led me to start working on another photo project in an attempt to preserve more family history artifacts.

For the last several years, my former father-in-law, Gerald Westfall, and his siblings have held a family reunion for their immediate family and each year I bring the family history stuff I have worked on. There used to be another family reunion hosted at the farm of a distant cousin, Francis Andera, that included more extended family but Francis passed on and that reunion tradition died out. There are very few who even remember how any one is even related anymore. The branches have spread too far out from the original source. My children attend school with some of their fourth cousins but you have to have the family tree chart out to go back to figure out the common ancestor of whom the children certainly have no recollection or knowledge of.

Anyway, that distant cousin’s grandmother was a Westfall but the reunion included the Trautman and Ploetz families and we started calling it the Trautman/Ploetz/Westfall (TPW) reunion. Um, let’s see, even I have to go back to my family files and figure it out: Augusta Westfall married Carl Ploetz and their son Martin married Louise Trautman. Their daughter Caroline was the mother of Francis. At one of the TPW reunions, Francis shared with me a photograph of Gerald Westfall’s grandmother taken in the 1950s or 1960s. Francis told me it was taken at a family reunion that was held back then. I used the copy machine there at the farm to make a copy of that one and another one of Carl and Augusta Ploetz for my family files. The photographs were part of some old photo albums that Francis had. I believe they came from his mother Caroline, but she died in the year 2000 and I had only met her briefly.

Now it’s 2013 and I live in the house across from that farm where the family reunions used to be held. It’s been at least four years since the last one. Not long ago, I asked Francis’s widow if I could look at the box of old family photos again. My intent was to make a better copy of those original photos for my family files. She lent me the box that appears to be originally Caroline’s stuff. It includes, among other things, a bible of hers with some newspaper clippings inside, a lot of loose snapshot photos and three old photograph albums. Putting the other items aside, I was eager to look through the albums for those pictures.

But they are no longer there.

The photo albums have been ravaged. It appears that someone went through and took a lot of the photos out. It makes me sad. There is now no order. No coherent story is really left to tell. Someone went through the trouble to put the albums together, but someone else took what they wanted and left the rest. Now I understand this is not exclusively my family history and for the person or persons who took the photos, they probably did it because of their connections to that part of the family history. But I feel bad because I’m interested in the family as a whole and preserving the legacy. And some of the names and stories will now no longer be told.



Some months after going through those old photographs with my grandfather, I found the tombstone of the gentleman my grandfather called a “bastard.” Beside his grave marker was one for his wife and then several for their children who had died young. I felt sad because it appeared that his line had died out. In later research though, I discovered there was a happier ending. The gentleman and his wife had several additional children (one even became a minister) who lived to adulthood and continued the family line.


I hope there’s a happy ending with the photograph albums. Maybe someone has taken the photos and used them to put together a more comprehensive family file. I hope so.  

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