Tucked into the back of my closet sit four age-old suitcases. You’d recognize the type. They’re all the rage these days in trendy retro clothing boutiques – leather bound time travellers used as decoration. Handles intact, they are at the ready if the place goes up in flames. For herein lives my ancestry. It cannot be replaced.
As the inheritor of the family’s tangible heritage, I am woefully a lapsed custodian. Ironic in that I’ve invested the better part of my professional career making meaning of other people’s history. The collection is a mess – a mash-up of ‘all sorts’ to phrase a notation written on an envelope entitled Contents of the Family Bible … and I am not making it any better.
A Fixed Gaze
Every once in a while I invite my ancestors out from their confines; let their photographs commingle as I imagine that they once did in life. Each time I find a new trail to follow. It starts with one fixed gaze … didn’t I see you somewhere before?
Of all the photographs in the oldest suitcase, his are the most abundant. The Great War sealed his notoriety and respect within the family archive.
*** My annotations below include what I know and what I’ve heard to be so – not to be confused with actuality. History recounted is never that black and white.
- Born near the dawn of the 20th century – exact date unknown.
- Son of Emaline Graham Armstrong born August 13, 1874; my great-grandmother’s older sister.
- A serious young man … or is his solemn demeanour the dictates of a portrait photographer from the Novelty Photo Studio, 217 Bank Street, Ottawa? Hold still for the long exposure time; blurred images are for dogs and babies!
I had always assumed that the Great War had not impacted my family. Who was I kidding? It touched everyone.
Mother and Son
- Before embarkation – exact year unknown – 1914? 15? 16? What does it matter? He’s leaving and she has to let him go…
- Each face tells a story and it is theirs alone. I have no words.
I have an obsessive curiosity for annotations on the backs of photographs; never satisfied with just the power of the image; always looking for more meaning under the surface – like a painting’s pentimento.
The final image I have of Walter is unusual in that a personal notation is written on the back: “Walter – looking happy”. No other photograph in my collection from this era is personalized in this way. Why was his happiness an occasion worth noting? Who thought this important enough to comment? I’ll never know, but I’m happy for him. Walter came through the horrors of war and was able to smile on the other side. With those two words, someone close to him acknowledged this moment as special.
The Concept of Sharing
I return to the suitcases time and again for perspective and assurance – finding a bit of myself in those who have gone before. The importance of sharing stories and making meaning of our history is not lost on this museum fanatic but, for the moment, I keep these suitcases to myself – my selfish self. I am fully aware that what I know will be lost to my descendants if I do not share it in some way, and soon. God forbid the archive ends up in some thrift store or in the window of some vintage clothing shop!
I continue to avoid the online mania that would surely engulf me if I ever subscribed to genealogical search services from the comfort of my own home. It could happen … but look at all my family faces without names! Surely someone ‘out there’ might recognize them and find meaning where I cannot. I could always just start with the free trial offer…
P.P.S. (added on August 21, 2015)
Metaphors are funny things – once in your head, you can’t seem to shake them. In the intervening time since writing this article, my mind’s eye can’t stop visualizing the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives as one giant suitcase. The analogy is an apt one. We pack up collections and send them out on road trips – both literally and virtually. We organize its contents, continue searching for new meaning and persist in adding that which is relevant and irreplaceable.
Happy to report there’s no closet hoarding happening here. We share our ancestral finery.