How We Vanish

Week 35: #52 Ancestors – Unforgettable

By Eilene Lyon

This week’s prompt really stopped me in my tracks. Unforgettable? If there’s anything I’ve learned from all my years of genealogy research is that family history is eminently forgettable. So many fascinating stories have been rescued from oblivion by sheer determination on my part (and yes, with the help of research passed down to me by my grandmothers).

If someone alive today had a personal relationship with a dead relative, then they are remembered. If not – well, the shame of it is that the dead are forgotten on a regular basis. When I’m gone, who will remember me? I don’t even have children to mourn my passing.

It’s why I do what I do. Resurrect the lives of those who have gone before. Put some flesh on their bones and share it on my blog, in my newsletter, in my books. I want to make my ancestors and relatives unforgettable.

If anyone needs a reminder of how unmemorable we are, just look through some old, unlabeled family photographs. Yours or anyone else’s. There are billions of them moldering away in closets, attics, antique stores. Faces, no names. How sad.

Both of my grandmothers kept photo albums. Dad’s mom, Reatha (Gusso) Halse, left untidy albums with photos glued in crookedly, in no chronological order whatsoever. But she wrote captions for almost everything. Not that it always helps.

This photo has it all: I can see it was taken in front of Guy Halse’s distinctive barn, in December 1931, and the man in the wagon is Chet Painter, certainly a relative of mine. But “Chet” is a nickname and I am still stumped as to who this man is. Most likely he is Truey Chester Painter (1886-1969).

My survey of the Dexter Cemetery led me to the conclusion that this damaged grave marker belongs to Truey Chester Painter. (E. Lyon 2015)

Mom’s mother, Clare (Davis) Smith, kept the tidiest of albums, generally in date order, photos with neat little corner pockets. And she identified nothing. It’s quite frustrating for this family historian.

This photo from one of her albums appears to have been taken in the early 1930s, because there are also pictures of Clare that seem to have been taken at the same time and place. I thought it was a picture of her cousin, Clara Leona “Peggy” Myrick.

I sent the image to Peggy’s nephews and was quickly informed that no, this is in fact a photo of their mother, Peggy’s younger sister, Roberta. Even better, I got the story behind the picture:

“I remember my mom Robbie showing me this photo and saying it was her, in a new dress for a 4th of July gathering. While lighting fireworks that night, the dress caught on fire and was damaged beyond repair. She remembered her mom being very angry (mom was OK).”

Clare Smith’s mother, my great-grandmother Clara (Ransom) Davis, unlike Clare, kept untidy, even damaged, photographs that she wrote on directly to identify people. She gave some to her descendants and many she donated to various archives. Those in archives are identified, at least to some extent, with a glaring exception. It has me dying for answers.

Clara donated this series of glass negatives to the University of Idaho Special Collections in 1913, with no explanation at all. Cousins and I believe the toddler is Clara’s daughter, June Ransom Davis, born in 1907, placing the date of photos at about 1909-1910. The infant, however, is a complete mystery.

Clare wasn’t born until 1914 and we know of no other children in the family. June did have a couple cousins born in the right time frame in Moscow: Isaac Elton Ricketts and Mary Ione Davis. Could this baby be one of them?

Idaho didn’t begin statewide birth registrations until 1911. Though some counties began a little earlier, Latah County apparently kept only sporadic records from 1907 to 1911. Death records began in 1907, but I have found nothing for a Davis infant. Nor is there a record at the cemetery.

My only hope was a baptism record. Unfortunately, the Methodist Church records in Moscow are a disorderly lot. A cursory search by the secretary came up empty on baptisms for any of Clara’s children, but the records show they were usually performed on young children, not infants.

Perhaps we are on the wrong track altogether. The toddler isn’t June Davis, nor is the infant a child of Clara and her husband, Sterling P. Davis. But then why did Clara have these images, and why did she donate them to the university without identification? We may never know. And these children will be forever forgotten.

Feature image: Wedding photo from Clare Smith’s album. Clare and Laurence Smith are on the right, but the bride, groom, and man on the left have defied my efforts at identification. It’s possible the groom was Laurence’s co-worker/friend.

37 thoughts on “How We Vanish

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  1. Your reasons for doing this work resonate with me. I feel the same way. All these people deserve to be remembered—even if only as names and dates in a blog post, though I always hope to find more about them than that.

    And now I need to go make sure all my photos are labeled!

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Oh, the stories behind photos! I asked my mother why her parents were all dressed up in one. A wedding? Funeral? No, it was to have a needle taken out of her mother’s hand! Why would they dress up for that? Well, it was during the Great Depression. They either wore those clothes, or overalls and a housedress. That’s all they had. Wow, I’m glad I asked.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. That’s a great story, Joy! I hadn’t ever heard of getting all dressed up for 4th of July festivities, but I can see it might have been a big deal back then. By the time of my childhood, parents were perhaps more practical, knowing the kids would be playing and getting dirty (or setting fire to themselves!).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This rings true for me. I had listened to stories about my relatives and have pictures, but we never wrote any of it down!! Now with my parents and aunts and uncles all gone some of the stories are forgotten. I need to be more diligent. I have a cousin on my father’s side, who like you, has done research and documents it all, but it is my mother’s side where we’ve done a little but not enough. I have this one photo of about 40 relatives, we assume a picnic, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland but we don’t know who they are, but we do know they are relatives on my maternal grandmother’s side. I wish I knew why they were gathered together and who each are.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I wonder if someone else might have a copy of that group photo. It’s like with Robbie’s sons, I just recently connected with them and now I know about this photo. Saving family memories can’t just be up to one person. It’s very much a group effort. That’s one reason Ancestry has become such a popular website. It really helps people connect.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I have labored over who are some of the people in my undocumented photos too…I keep asking and show thing to family that I connect with in hopes that some one will have the same or similar photo and that the people in their photo are identified. When I was twelve years old my Grandmother hog tied me…(not really but it felt like it to a twelve year old) and made me help her get her husband…my grandfather to identify people in photos from his family…It was a dusty old box of photos. Somehow she knew the right person for this job. I wrote in a hurried scribbled the names as I heard them…did not ask the correct spelling. I just wanted to get this job done so that I could go be with my Friends. Thirty five years later when I began my family history journey. Those photos were invaluable….misspellings and all. I get goosebumps every time I think of that day. document…document… document. Do not hesitate to involve your Grandchildren because that will carry your story into the future.

      Today, (when my canning is done) that is why I write, blog, and search. Every research day presents another mystery. Enjoy the journey

      Jan

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Such a wise grandmother you had! I rarely had the opportunity to spend much time with my grandparents, unfortunately. But I am grateful for the information they did collect and pass on to me. Family history really is a never-ending mystery and scavenger hunt rolled into one.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. My Smith Grandfather was a minister and we maybe saw them ever few months….at the time of our picture “adventure” Grandpa had MS and was confined to a wheelchair. My father…an only surviving child would bring them to our house once a month in the summer to enable them to get away from their small two room apartment in downtown Detroit… we saw them monthly for a few years at the end of their lives…Jan

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree, I even have photos I took last Millennium 😂, and can’t remember a lot of the names of places or people pictured. I have changed my ways since I started blogging, but so much information might be lost forever, and from my parents’ photos, as well.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I also have those unidentified last Millenium photos. It seems such an oddly human reaction to think, No need to label these–of course I’ll remember who these people are, where the pictures were taken, and the occasion. Then twenty years later . . .

      Liked by 2 people

  5. So true. It’s the stories behind the pictures we love. I have some old photos no one knows who is who, including one “special occasion” one, which I think might have been associated with a visit for a funeral. I wonder with all this digital technology and everyone’s photos online, if the computer systems crash in some future tech world war, we will have no photos left.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The stories really bring the photos to life. I know some people who still get prints of their digital photos. I think it is a good idea for special ones. Many people collect them in family books you can buy through various photo websites. I have one that a cousin put together after our family reunion last summer. It has historic family photos as well as ones from the gathering.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Old family photos on my side are reasonably well identified. John was very young (11) when his father died and his mother didn’t keep in close touch with her husband’s family. John reconnected with them as an adult and we were given some photos after an elderly aunt died. We were told who they were, where it wasn’t obvious, but didn’t label them at the time. Fools! The cousin who passed them on is also now dead and we have no idea. I would be much more attentive to detail these days.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s sad when the opportunity passes like that. I still could sit with my aunt and go through her mother’s albums and possibly learn some things, though she won’t always be correct. My mother’s dementia is too far along now to get any more from her.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have a number of photos of my mother (who died when I was two years old) with other women, and with my dad at a club, but I have no idea who the others are, and no one to ask. I often think about how these folks have something to do with my life, but what that might be will remain a mystery. In this age of endless selfies think how many future viewers will have this same thought unless the photos are “tagged!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, life moves on and maybe in some respects all this history is not really adding anything. We can see the same stupid stuff happening over and over, because we just don’t learn. Maybe completely erasing the earlier generations could lead to some truly revolutionary new ways of doing things, instead of passing on our prejudices and bad habits. Also food for thought.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That is profound, Eilene. I was just opining about this recently, this mess that my kids and their kids will live in. At the end of all our battles and petty politics and -Gates . . . we gifted them this.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Someday we might learn to remember the right stuff and forget the right stuff. The mess of this world our g-g-g-generation is making is somewhat more of a problem than thoughts and attitudes. It’s an environmental nightmare.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I love that photo of Roberta! I’m in the same boat as you, with no kids, and probably no one to remember me when I’m gone, but I do like your idea of keeping otherwise forgotten relatives alive through genealogy. If I don’t manage to make my mark on the world in some other way (like if I ever write a book as I’ve been meaning to for years), I hope someone does the same for me!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Oh, those pictures in antique stores (or worse, thrift stores!) really give me pause. Forgotten family members that no relative wanted to keep… really sad. It must have bothered my dad too. About a year before he died, he took all the old photos he had, writing down all the names he knew and any stories any remembered, and gave copies to each of his kids. You would have liked him, and I know he would have been impressed with your work!

    Liked by 1 person

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