Last Sunday we went to a family reunion in Northern California that gathered together descendants of my paternal grandmother’s family. It was great to see my aunts and cousins, but the best part of the reunion was getting to look at a collection of family photos – some dating back as far as the 1870s – that I had never seen before.
There was my grandmother, Jane, looking angelic as a five-year-old in 1910:
She looked much different than the woman I knew (seen below ninety-two years later at my sister’s wedding):
There was a photo of Jane’s husband, my grandfather George, rocking bizarrely feminine ringlets some time around the sinking of the Titanic:
There was my Great Aunt Madeline:
Though my great aunt died before I could meet her, she was such a beloved family figure that, when Heather suggested we name our first born Madeline, I immediately knew it was the perfect name.
And then there was a photo that gathered all of these people and more sometime in the Roaring Twenties:
That’s my grandfather in the upper right hand corner, and grandmother standing in the center.
Lastly, there was the oldest photo in the collection, one of my great-great-grandparents, William and Magdalena Langguth (and their daughter Cora), who came to America from Germany around the time of the Civil War. In fact, Magdalena’s brother, Henri, signed up to fight for the Union shortly after arriving in America and perished somewhere on a Southern battlefield. I recognize in their faces more than just traces of the physical features we share. I also recognize a familiar sadness. William and Magdalena, you see, lost their first three children in childhood. Being poor immigrants, they had no money to bury their children anywhere but in Potter’s Field. Twenty-years later, however, William and Magdalena were able to buy a family plot at a proper cemetery and had their three deceased children exhumed and transferred there. Once William and Magdalena too passed, they were placed alongside the children that went before them.
It is interesting to look at photos such as these and to think about family and ancestry. Though it only take a couple generations for our ancestors to become little more than strangers to us, we nevertheless are continuing the same story by adding a chapter full of our own triumphs and tragedies to the ones they wrote before us.