Family

Finding Friends and Strangers in Old Family Photos

A jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces and no idea what the finished puzzle should look like

As I related in other recent stories, I have been going through a large box of old family photos that had been given to my sister by our aunt, my father’s sister. In the box were old photo albums, and a number of manila envelopes with loose photos, letters, and drawings. It has been fascinating and educational to see these reminders of my forebears and relatives.

I’ve been scanning everything into shared albums. One of the last manila envelopes I opened was just labeled “Dad.” As expected, there were many dozens of photos of my father, his family, and his friends. Most were old, showing my father as a child or a young boy. A few were newer and looked to me like things my father or sister might have added later.

About half of the photos had something written on the back. Very often, it was just “Larry,” or “Larry with Helen” (his mother). Some included a date or a location, which is helpful. I had seen copies of some of these before, so finding additional information on the back sometimes gave me insights I hadn’t known previously.

Two photos attracted my interest because the notations on the backs mentioned “Katherine.” One showed Katherine walking with my father and I immediately realized who this had to be: my grandparents took in a foster child named Katherine Clasby when she was twelve years old. The genealogical information I have mentions her without explaining any circumstances that required fostering. Given that Katherine and even her children remained in touch with my grandmother and my aunt for all of her life, it seems that she became part of our family.

My sister recalls going for a walk with Katherine’s daughter during one of Katherine’s visits with our grandmother. They were both adults at the time.

I was also able to estimate a date for the group photo because another photo of my father where he appears to be about the same age has “1918” written on the back.

The Wikitree entry for my grandfather mentions Katherine and provided a link to Katherine’s page. She died in 1978; I have no knowledge that any of her living descendants are aware of that Wikitree entry that my cousin created, but as there were no photos of her on the page, I added these two and explained where they had come from.

No one may ever care that I did that; no descendant or relative may ever see the photos. If anyone does see or care, I likely will not know. That’s fine; I feel that adding the images was the right thing to do.

A friend of my dad

The next find surprised me. Coincidentally, I talked to one of my wife’s closest and oldest friends a few weeks ago. As a boy, her father had lived very nearby to where my father lived in Sharon, Massachusetts, where all of us grew up. My wife’s friend was unaware of that, and was also unaware that her father and mine had known each other.

I knew that only because I had gone to school with her brother. We had not been close friends, but we knew each other and knew that our fathers also knew each other.

That’s all we knew, though. Both my sister and I assumed that my father’s boyhood friend was another man who still lived in the town and also had a son my age. We thought that because the two of them were close friends when we were children.

The picture changed things. The writing on the back identified everyone in the picture and said that my father and the father of my wife’s friend had been “inseparable.”

Something about the boy and girl in the picture triggered a memory of an unmarked photo I had scanned a few days earlier. It looked to me that the boy and girl in that picture were the same people: her father and his sister.

I emailed the photos to my wife’s friend, who was as surprised as I was. She was also pleased because she had never seen a picture of her aunt. She confirmed that her father and aunt were in both photos.

I’m sure that being able to find connections from century-old photos is a rare occurrence. I only knew about Katherine because other relatives had put her information on my grandfather’s Wikitree page. I had lost touch with anyone in the family of my wife’s friend long ago. It was only because my wife had maintained her friendship that I was able to pass those photos on. In both cases, only the writing that someone added identified the people in the photos.

Now that I know that the second photo is her family, I can reasonably assume that the location was Sharon. As I grew up in Sharon, I think it may have been at Mann’s pond. According to my wife’s friend, her Dad said that he loved to play there as a boy; I know that there are stone arches like that there. Of course, there are other places with similar structures; I’ll try to do some image searches to narrow it down.

I couldn’t find any images to match the stones in that arch, so I drove to Sharon and checked Mann’s pond myself. Unless the arch in the picture fell long ago, it wasn’t there. I wrote to the Sharon Historical Society to ask if they knew of other stone arches like that, but they have not replied.

I am also flipping back through the pictures that were unmarked to see if I recognize any people or places from those that do have information. This is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces and having no idea what the finished puzzle should look like, but it is interesting and fun.

It also reminds me that pictures should be identified, no matter how obvious and unnecessary we might think it is. We do not know who may be looking at them a century or more later.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a service where we could all submit old photos and include whatever we know about them? Image recognition software could sort through the images to discover connections we could never find ourselves. One of your old family photos might have a picture of my grandfather or vice versa. That software could provide interesting information to both of us and might sometimes clear up long standing mysteries.

Written by

Retired Unix Consultant. Kicking back and enjoying writing now. Not seeking work, not selling anything. No longer responsible for my old aplawrence site.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store