As a kid, I would sometimes purchase new aunts, grandparents, and cousins. No, it wasn’t some kind of mail-order bride-type scheme or human trafficking. It was old photographs to fill a family album.

My dad collects old cameras, and every year, we’d go to a big camera show just south of Seattle. Honestly, I dreaded going. Camera bodies, lenses, straps, red bellows, black bellows, tripods, and other metallic odds and ends filled table after table in what seemed to be a room without end. My dad looked at everything at least five times. Maybe five hundred. Or at least that’s what it seemed to my child-sized patience.

Then one year, my mom and I discovered a side room filled with shoe boxes and milk crates of black and white photographs. Babies in Christening gowns on tufted chairs; head shots of women with braids wrapped several times around their heads; mothers and children standing buttoned up around a seated father in a suit and bowler. I couldn’t stop flipping through the photographs, wondering who these people were and how they ended up anonymously stashed in a box. Most had nothing written on the back.

“Lost relatives,” I declared to my mom.

She was fingering a worn velvet photo album with “Family Album” stamped in gold on the front. Inside, its thick board pages had cut-out windows surrounded by printed flowers, polka dots, and curlicues. It was the most beautiful photo album I’d ever seen. A paper tag inside said it dated from the 1890s.

Soon, we were grabbing photos from the boxes and trying them out in the album. Maybe this beautiful woman in the bustle was my great-great-great aunt? And this toddler leaning over the back of the chair a distant cousin? Maybe, why not? We soon filled the album with our new relatives.

To this day, I can’t stop looking at old photographs, trying to imagine who these people are and what their lives must have been like. Photographs of old sports teams and panoramic view of factories with all the employees lined up out front are some of my favorites. And of course, this photo:

This is one of my favorite photos. A bikini and hip waders?! Pretty much perfect.
This is one of my favorite photos. A bikini and hip waders?! Pretty much perfect. Source: WHI 1994

The velvet album filled with my fictional family still sits in my parents’ living room, the people in the photos separated from their own families but more than welcome in mine.

 

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