This is a story about my family. And photos. And connection to the past.
My Grandpa Short, my paternal grandfather, died about two and a half years before I was born, and a little less than a year before my parents got married. For part of my life I knew more about how he died (of a sudden brain hemorrhage on Meadowbrook Golf Course in Richmond) than how he lived.
I knew small things that my father told me. I knew his name was Francis, like my father, and also like my grandfather’s own father. I knew he liked ice cream a lot, just like my own father. I knew he had been a court clerk for Kent County Courthouse; we actually had his court badge which was one of the only images I’d ever seen of him, as well as his signature stamp. I knew his nickname was “The Swede”; his heritage was 100% Irish, but he had fair skin, light blond hair even into adulthood, and blue eyes that were light and clear. Sometimes my father or my aunt or uncle would tell stories and he seemed interesting. He would move his family to another house fairly often, or buy new cars fairly often. I wondered what his reasoning was for this. I wondered what his voice sounded like. When I was small I used to talk to him and asked him to send me a sign that he heard me. I think he did.
At some point in my life, I honestly don’t remember when, a photo showed up on the bookshelf at my parents’ house.
This image is of my grandfather (back left) with his three brothers. It was taken over one hundred years ago at this point, in a studio in Providence. As a photographer who photographs families as well as young children, I can appreciate the time, effort, and skill that went into capturing this photo back when photography technology was nothing like it is now, when getting an image correct in camera was tantamount. Also, I appreciate the care that went into dressing all four boys in their best to get studio photos taken. But much more than that, as my grandfather’s grandchild, I am enthralled by this image. Besides the image that was on his court badge, for many years, this was the only other one I saw. I noticed how his clear eyes were evident even in the sepia image, how he stared directly into the camera, as my father does, while none of his brothers are quite looking. I searched for something I knew in his face. Tell me stories, I would think as I looked at the photo. Tell me about you. How are you connected to us? What is your story? I see you. I have never met my grandfather or spoken to him but having an image to connect with him is huge.
About five years ago, my father’s cousin sent an email with some information about their grandfather, and it contained some scanned photos, many of which had images of my own grandfather from childhood through young adulthood. One was a professional image take at the same time as the one at my parents’ house (again, look at the dead on stare my grandfather has right into the camera) while the others were images likely taken by family members using the cameras of the day.
All over again, I was drawn in. In my grandfather and the other relatives in the photos, I would see my uncle’s eyes and my brother’s mouth and the way my father stands. I would think, I know you are not here, but your photos are telling us your story and helping us to know you. Without these photos I would never feel the connection I do to you. I would not know this piece of me.
I look at these images and wonder where my great grandfather went (he’s on the left in the top image, my grandfather is on the right). My great grandfather invented the machine that paints the lines in the middle of the road. He also disappeared, probably on purpose, though nobody knows where he went, in the late twenties. I look at these images and wonder who the heck the lady is in the striped outfit…nobody seems to know. A prison escapee? One of the earliest photo bombers? And I also wonder about the child in front. Her name is Madeline. She was my grandfather’s sister. I didn’t know she existed until I was in my late thirties. I don’t believe my father did, either. She did not make it past toddlerhood. She is in no other images that I can find. So I look at this one. Without this image, I wouldn’t know her. Tell me your story, Madeline, I think in my head. Tell me.
There was one day I walked past the photo on my parents’ bookshelf and looked at it and realized I recognized the young boy in the photo. Not just because he is my grandfather and because I have looked at the photo every day for years, but because my oldest nephew looks just like him. Looking at that boy in the photos and looking at my nephew is like looking at the same person.
I’m here, my grandfather is saying. I’m here. We are connected. We are always connected.