For some reason I am becoming obsessed with instant ancestors.
What are instant ancestors, you ask?
Well, if you visit any antique shop chances are you will find a wide assortment of old photographs ranging from tintypes to Polaroids of nameless faces sitting usually in a jumble in a dusty box crammed in between every salt-and-pepper shaker set known to man and about a zillion or two Mason jars.
The folks could be peering out with wide smiles or looking stern, matronly, or surprised they got their image captured on film.
Usually they don’t come with any useful information on the back of the photographic paper, unless you get lucky and find an occasionally scribbled (usually indecipherable) mention of a name or perhaps a date or location.
Very occasionally the person in the photograph evidently does not like his or her image and entreats the recipient to discard it, despite the fact that it had been sent as a postcard.Don’t keep this photo!
But that’s pretty rare.
But typically these are pretty anonymous.
Which makes them perfect for instant ancestors.
I have, in my Fair City, perused many an antique shop and seem always to be drawn to these collections of memories cast aside perhaps as a result of someone’s relation passing away and nobody being willing to bring home the old family photos to distribute amongst their extended clan.
Chances are these photos have sat in boxes for years underneath somebody’s bed, or an attic, or in the basement, forgotten for decades.
The memories captured within the shots fading along with the paper itself.
And for some reason I find that sad.
I wonder who would simply toss aside a connection to the past, a chance to trace one’s roots.
Maybe I’m weird.
Every time I see my Mum in Canada, I always find myself going through her photo albums and culling many black and white shots of family, always being careful to ask permission of course. She doesn’t seem to mind. My Dad put most of the albums together and in the years leading up to his death from Alzheimer’s dementia, the placement of some of the shots got increasingly haphazard and disjointed. I called it “fun with Alzheimer’s.” You’d see a black and white shot of me as a baby in a buggy on some random Toronto street (while there was colour film available, for some reason my Dad preferred black and white; Mum thinks it is because it was cheaper), then there’d be an airplane going overhead on a Polaroid, then perhaps a generic house photograph (not always of our house!), then another sweet photo of my Mum and me, then a snowy street scene.
I generally swipe the ones with the people in them.
I find these photographs more valuable than any other gift my parents could give me.
For it’s a connection.
A connection to my Mum who at 37 with her first child was pretty “elderly” for a new mum but clearly had a lot of fun with me when I was tiny.
Mum and baby having fun
A glimpse into the wry humour that my Nana clearly possessed in what may be remnants of a passport photo or perhaps a photo booth session.
Nana’s wry smile
A look at my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Emma, whose beauty still shines.
An insight into how my Dad, a mechanical designer, clearly loved his work (even before CAD design).
Dad the designer
A guess as to what my great grandfather was thinking as he went off to the Boer War.
Boer War great grandpa
These all connect me to my past and provide some form of comfort as oftentimes this modern world seems scary and alienating.
But I don’t limit myself to my own relations.
As I mentioned in another post, I found a plastic bag full of black and white photographs of a lady in a thrift shop. I was lucky this time and found her name on the back of a couple of the shots and was able to track her down and learn a bit about her.
Catherine from the thrift store
One of her photos now is taped in my garage next to the plans for my husband’s restoration for his 1920 Model T.
I didn’t put her there, he did.
When I asked why, he just said it seemed like she wanted to watch the progress.
I’ve got other instant ancestors, most likely in no way biologically related to me directly (we are all connected if you go back far enough!) all over the walls of my office. One shows a wedding party. I framed that one; it seemed fitting. Another one is of a soldier from some distant war. Another one is of a little girl looking mildly nonplussed at being photographed.
I bring them home to honour them again; to rescue them, if you will, from thrift shop anonymity.
Apparently I am not the only one intrigued by this phenomenon of Instant Ancestors.
There’s a site called “MyHeritage” which offers to match up their collection of old photographs to a name and/or date that you type in, in the hope that you may too locate your long-lost great uncle Alvin. As the site says, “Behind every family photo is a story.” That’s so true.
There’s a story of a lady who purchased an old camera at a thrift shop only to discover film still inside it. She developed them and then shared the photos with the site, KSL.com. Eventually, she was able to reconnect with an elderly gentleman who was more than grateful to see his photographs returned to him.
There are many pages on Pinterest that feature this very topic. You can find some incredibly cool photos there. Perhaps one or two are your actual relations.
Or if you are in an extravagant mood, there are many Etsy shops that also offer some really incredible vintage photographs.
I doubt I will ever stop scouring the dusty shelves at my local thrift shops or antique stores for treasures to add interest and mystery to my home.
I always have room for a few more instant ancestors.
“My heritage has been my grounding, and it has brought me peace.” — Maureen O’Hara.