Monday, October 30, 2017

Photographs: A Cautionary Tale

Harriet Gordon,
bar mitzvah, 1960
I have posted before about the benefits of showing unidentified photographs to older family members to see if they recognize any of the faces.  It's important to do that as soon as possible — multiple times, if necessary — because once those older family members have passed away, no one else in the family may recognize the faces in those old photographs.  And sometimes it doesn't even have to be as dramatic as someone passing away for the opportunity to be lost.

Several years ago, in 2002, I visited my grandmother, Bubbie, in Florida.  We had lunch with several of her cousins, and she remembered that she had photos that were important to them:  "I have a photograph of your parents on their wedding day."  "I have a photo of you when you were a baby."  When we returned to her apartment after the luncheon, she had me drag out four big boxes of photos and we went through them looking for those she wanted to give to the cousins.  Bubbie wouldn't let me label any of the photos, but we put aside the ones she wanted to give to the cousins.

Fast forward two years to 2004.  Bubbie's memory had started to fade a little.  She hadn't actually begun to forget things, but she was repeating herself several times in one conversation.  I remembered those boxes of unlabeled photographs and thought I better do something.  I was already planning to visit a paternal cousin near Orlando, Florida for Thanksgiving, and my grandmother lived near Fort Lauderdale.  That was pretty close, so I  told Bubbie I wanted to visit her and quickly added a flight to Fort Lauderdale to my schedule.

This time Bubbie was much more amenable to labeling the photos.  I brought piles of sticky notes.  We went through all four boxes again, and she let me put a note on every photo.  This not only meant that every photo was identified, it led to the discovery that one photo was of my great-great-grandparents.

And why is this a cautionary tale?  The visit to my grandmother was in November.  The next summer, in 2005, she had a severe stroke.  While her brain and memory functions were left relatively intact, she was functionally blind.  She could no longer see the photographs and would not have been able to tell me who was in them.

I am very fortunate that I took advantage of the opportunity to visit my grandmother and convince her to let me label the photographs she had.  If you have a lot of unidentified photos in your family, don't wait.  Talk to those older relatives and ask for their help in letting you know who is in the photos.


  1. Good advice. It is very sad when someone won't let you label photos. My husband had a great-uncle and he wouldn't let anyone write on his photos either. There has been discussion after he died as to who some of the people were in the photos. It's fortunate that we have sticky notes now at least, though they can fall off!

  2. I was so frustrated when Bubbie wouldn't allow me to label the photos on that first visit. She figured she knew who everyone was, so there was no problem. I'm grateful she changed her mind on the second visit.


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