You know those calls you get from time to time that you really don’t want but inevitably they always ring. I’m not just talking about telemarketers during dinnertime but rather that calls that bring the bad news that someone you know has died. Last Friday it was actually a text from my sister-in-law Ann letting us know her dad Harold had passed. Not entirely a surprise as he’s been in the hospital and this was the weekend they as a family were going to need to make some hard choices about his future since he wasn’t making any progress. He took the pressure off their shoulders and made it easy which is I guess the role of a father or parent, taking the pressure off their kids and he did this right up till the end. The second you get this sort of news you immediately reflect back to the last time you saw the dearly departed. For me I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Harold and his wife Alma last summer at my mom’s 80’s birthday open house. I certainly didn’t get to have any deep discussion but it was sure nice getting a bit caught up and I was ever so glad that he got a chance to meet all my girls.
Back in the 90’s when I was in my first home in Niagara Falls I saw an awful lot of Harold, usually cake or presents were involved. His grandchildren are also my niece and nephew and we were always on the same guest list for any family function my brother and sister-in-law put on. I can honestly say I had the great privilege to learn a lot from him. I was at the very beginning of my handyman life and he was closing in on about 50 years into his so he had lots wisdom to share. Both my brother and I listened and learned and I know we’re both better off in our ability twenty years on from his suggestions.
These moments in life always leave you with the feeling you wish you’d said more, or visited more often. I was ever so pleased that I do have a great photo from that day last August of both Harold and his wife. I don’t know if it was the last one taken of them together but they both look great on this day and I’m glad to have it. I always hate when I realize later I missed a photo opportunity. At that same party last summer I never found the time to get a photo with a few old friends, which I regret. Even last week when JoAnn’s Dad took off back east after a couple of weeks here in BC did I realize I never got a photo of both him and his wife with all the girls. It’s not just about the photo book I create each Christmas for family but rather I’m trying to keep an ongoing record of the girls with their extended family. Right now these photos may mean very little to them but an inconvenience in having to smile but in a few decades one of these photos might mean the world to them when the people in the photo are no longer reachable at the end of a phone. I think of photos of myself with my dad and I have two from when I’m still a boy and we’re holding fish up at the cottage. I have one of my two brothers and I all being sworn into the union with dad in a suit as proud as proud can be. The only photo I have of myself with both my parents is on my wedding day, twenty years ago this summer. I had thirteen more years after that event to grab another photo with them both but I never did. I still remember when my parents left my house to head for the airport after Thanksgiving 2007. My dad shook my hand as he left which was a bit out of character for him and I watched from the front porch as they backed out of our driveway and waved as they drove out of view. I had no way of knowing that was the last time I’d ever see my dad alive. I don’t think I took one photo of either of them during that last visit together. Regret I didn’t call for a photo just before he left?….maybe just a little. Yet here I just let JoAnn’s dad do the exact same thing seven years later, you’d think I’d learn. The moral here is to always take that photo when you have the chance. It doesn’t really matter at all if they protest at the suggestion of a photo, just do yourself a favour and make it happen. You have no idea how much you’ll miss the photo you didn’t take for years and regret is something that can actually be avoided.
I think the other important factor with photos is to take the time to put names on the back or at the very least a date. My wish would be for a story of what’s going on because again years from now someone who cares about you is going to come across old photos and they’ll have no idea why you took it or why it was important enough to capture that moment. Last summer I was going through a shoebox of old photo’s from my late grandmother at my mom’s. It was interesting to see my grandparents as a couple my age or younger, out on the town with friends. I recall my grandmother telling me stories about these days every summer up at the cottage but do you think I recall any of those stores now? I know my grandfather was a bit of a pool and card shark and they called him Hap in those days, short for Happy since he always had such a happy disposition. Something I totally understand as I rarely ever saw him upset. My grandmother told me about the other couples they rolled with back in those days…The Bozo’s I believe was one of them. That name sort of did stick with me. Now here I was years later looking at this great photo from the late forties or early fifties of my grandparents all dressed up, drinks in hand, lots of pigment in their hair unlike the white hairs I knew them as growing up. Everyone looking right at the camera, obviously a bit drunk and I had no idea what year it was or who the other couples were. I can imagine this is the photo that goes with the half story I still recall being told as a boy but that was over three decades ago. When my grandmother had gotten this photo developed if she had scratched “Dance Club on James Street Hamilton with the Bozo’s New Years 1948” I’d be able to fill in the rest. If I knew who else was in the photo I can guarantee their ancestors would also love to see this photo. It’s bad enough that all our personal memories are lost when we die if we didn’t take the time to share them but it’s almost worse to leave a photo with no back-story for someone to wonder about. Not everyone wants to be Sherlock and try to solve the mystery you left behind.
It took Facebook and a chance meeting with a guy named Trevor in Northern Ireland dropping by the page I created for my ancestral home in Tipperary to answer the nagging question of who was in a photo I’d had hanging in my living room for decades. I knew it was a family member since it came from my mother’s house but anyone who knew who this couple in the photo from the turn of the last century might be was already gone themselves. Mom just knew it had to be important since it was in with her grandmother’s photos from when they immigrated to Canada. Trevor told me his great-great grandparents names, which were in turn the same as mine. It turned out his great grand mother was my great grandfathers sister. When I shared this photo with him (which had been taken in Belfast, Trevor’s home town) he was able to immediately confirm this couple was his great grandparents. For over two decades I’ve been looking at that photo and finally I was able to put names to the faces. Really would it have been so hard to do that at any time during the 100 odd years since this photo was taken for someone who recognized them to put that on the back?
I guess the real moral of the story here is to be sure to give your photos a back story and some depth otherwise it’s just a cool old photo of someone you never met that you may or may not be related to doing something interesting. A few months ago JoAnn took the extraordinary steps to fly east to go through my mom’s home with my sister-in-law just to photograph and document the stories to go along with all the artifacts she’s collected in her life. God forbid anything should happen but mom is turning 81 this year and it’s best to capture these details when the only person who knows the story is still fully cognizant and most importantly still with us. We just want to make sure that when the time comes to downsize the house or when putting her affairs in order that anything that my folks picked up at an auction sale is not given the same status as an actual family heirloom. Pieces connected to the family help tell the story and give a tangible connection to the past for ancestors in the future. It’s sort of a time machine in a way. It’s interesting to hold something you know some one else in your family purchased a hundred years ago. When we took a handful of postcards my family brought with them in 1909 back to Ireland it was fascinating to find those locations now. It took three trips to Ireland and seven years before I could actually piece together the complete story these postcards told. All taken from different vantage points on the coast of the town of Tramore they last lived in, all the postcards were pointing towards the same high bluff coastline where their last home “Seaville” stood. The fact it was no longer there made tracking it much harder but if anyone had taken the time to explain on the back of any one of a dozen postcards what they looked at I would have known right away.
In this digital age when we all have a camera in our pockets at all times it’s easy to just shoot and shoot but never really capture anything. I know I myself have close to fifty thousand photos on my hard drive taken mostly in the past decade. My parents used to shoot one 12 exposure roll a year, on a big year maybe they’d used a 24 exposure and we’d see two Christmas turkeys and a bunch of fish. It’s just so easy to capture every moment but in a hundred years without a bit of context you’ll have just left tens of thousands of questions instead of the dozens I’ve inherited and those took years to solve. Just think of your great-great grandchildren trying to figure why you took so many photos of a cat. Take the time right now to write Fluffies name on the back along with the year. Tell a story in a coupe words why Fluffy was so important. Believe me your ancestor’s are going to thank you and that story will actually be just as valuable, even more so then the photos you leave behind.