“I know you don’t want this” my mom said, showing me a familiar set of framed photos to me. They were of my grandfather, as a young child, circa 1903. My elderly parents are in a place in their lives many are familiar with – they need and want (on some level) to downsize and to move from their multi-story home of almost 50 years to a one-level, smaller home in a senior community. Though it’s hard to let go of things, my mother is trying.
As she showed me the set portraits, I remembered it hanging in my grandfather’s house when I was a child. He was embarrassed by the images of him with curled hair and in a sailor’s dress, but my grandmother liked them. And so did I – at one time, but I didn’t want to take the frame home with me to Albany from my parents’ house in Indianapolis. I considered suggesting that we take the 5 oval photos and divide them up among me and my brothers…but then my mom said she wanted to take them to the Historical Museum of Wabash Indiana, where my grandfather’s family was from, to see if they would accept the portraits into their collection.
So my mom and I drove the 2 hours to Wabash. I had serious doubts about the worthiness of the portraits for posterity, but I thought the trip would be nice for me and my mom. And it was; as I drove, she told me more about the family and stories about her growing up. My grandfather’s parents had moved from Wabash shortly after those pictures were taken to seek their fortune first in Oklahoma and then Nebraska. The drive to Wabash took us through flat landscapes of vast cornfields that and also through one of those black-sky, thudding thunderstorms on the way there. “They better take this after all the trouble we’ve gone to!” my mother half joked.
When we got the museum, a curator came to talk with us. Upon inspection, he quickly recognized not my grandfather, but the work of Homer Showalter, esteemed photographer of Wabash and who was my grandfather’s uncle by marriage. I think I was just as pleased about the curators’ enthusiasm over the portraits as my mom was. I helped her fill out the paperwork for a committee to consider taking them as a donation. These images of my grandfather might not end up in the trash or in a bottom drawers, but be seen by others, at least for a while to come.
Not all my family’s stories are all cheery. When my mom was 12, her mother died and my grandfather made an informal foster family arrangement for my mom to live across town. Some family stories are shameful. A Klu Klux Klan hood was found in the attic of one of my great uncles after he died. Nobody took that to the Historical Society. I grew up being proud to be of “pioneer stock” but since then, of course, I’ve learned to recognize the oppression and genocide colonization has caused. All these stories and all this history is a part of me. I can celebrate my ancestors who lived out the values I hold and join others in working to dismantle systems of oppression.
As you visit with family this summer, what stories of your heritage might you uncover? How will you relate to those stories?