A photo in tin

I didn’t know this photo existed, but when we stopped by to see my grandfather, who is always full of surprises, he fished this image out of a stack. There were a handful of photos of him as a little boy, posing in a studio with his beautiful mother, and even some of his grandmother, who I knew.

Think of it. I have real memories of a great-great-grandmother who died, at 92, when I was in high school. I also had a great-grandmother who died when I was in college, and another great-grandmother who lived until I was 28. But this isn’t about those remarkable people. This is about this new-to-me photograph.

These people are my mother’s mother’s parents, my maternal-maternal great-grandparents. She died when I was three, but I don’t have any memory of her. He died when I was five, and I have a few glimpses of him in my mind’s eye.

Here, he’s holding my great-aunt. We estimate she’s about three years old in that photo, putting him at about 24 and his wife at about 21. She’s holding a great-uncle I never knew. But look how young!

My great-grandmother here looks like my grandmother. And from a few photos of this young woman I can see traits of most every woman in my family.

Earlier this month my mom texted me a photo of when she was a child, some four decades after the picture here. It looks like a vacation photo. She’s in oversized glasses, with her parents and her grandparents, the ones pictures here. Behind my mother is her grandmother, a mid-century grandma out of central casting. Her daughter, my grandmother, looks impossibly young in that way that never makes sense when you’re only accustomed to seeing someone in a different stage of their life. My grandfather is there, short sleeve button down, shiny watch, comical shorts (though I never knew him, I never think of him wearing shorts) and shin high dark socks. Now, except for those socks, it all works, because he has the mod haircut of the time and he’s wearing the best sunglasses 1960s technology had to offer.

Behind them all is my great-grandfather, my mother’s grandpa. That guy above. Long pants, long-sleeved shirt with a large windowpane print, with a neat little banded fedora on top of his head. He’s holding a cup with a straw in his left hand. They all look like they’re posing for a serious rock band photo, or as if something important has happened in front of them just as the photo was taken. They weren’t ready for a modern posed photograph, except for my great-grandfather, who is smiling just a bit.

He’s probably, let’s say, mid-early-60s in the image I just described. I remember him as an even older man, of course. Here he is, with two of his great-grandchildren. (He’d have 15 or so great-grandkids, but he wouldn’t get to meet the all. The best one is standing to his left, anyway.) He’s sitting in a creaky old lawn chair in his daughter’s lawn. I remember those chairs, and I spent a lot of time in that grass, beneath the kitchen window, around the little well building, and in front of the giant shop building.

He’s been posed in front a big building for both of those photos. It’s rather poetically symmetric in a way.

Trying to find a way to wrap up this post, I looked up some of that young woman’s lineage. With a few clicks, I was able to trace my great-great grandmother’s ancestors back five more generations, to when her great-great-great grandfather immigrated to South Carolina from Ireland aboard a vessel called the Lord Dunluce in 1772. He was 17-ish, came over alone, and had 100 acres coming to him, somehow. He got married, at 19, in 1774. He died in 1808, and is buried in South Carolina. Another part of her family, the Internet tells me, came from North Carolina after crossing the Atlantic at some point in the middle of the 18th century. That branch can be traced back, with no effort on my part, to the 16th and 17th century and places like Aarau and Zurich, Switzerland. Still others came over to Massachusetts, seemingly from England, in the early part of the 17th century.

But I’m going to wrap it up this way. My great-grandmother, in that first photo above, was picking cotton one morning. She was full-term, and, the story goes, delivered one of her children around midday. In the afternoon, she was back out in the field picking cotton again.

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