Old family photos are priceless treasures we ought to look after. Their colours, smell, the way the subjects are posing, even their quirky sizes remind us they are like an open door through which we can step into the past. They are a great way for younger generations to find out about their ancestors, share experiences, compare lifestyles and communicate with older members of their family.
These days, we tend to take endless strings of digital photos. I am certainly guilty of that! Thanks to advances in technology, our main way of freeze-framing memories has become our phone and more and more people can afford DSLR cameras, which take great photos even in automatic mode.
We can delete, edit, add effects, merge two photos together so that everyone looks their best, but we rarely print them, and look at them less than we used to when we had to take films to be developed before displaying them in albums.
My grandparents are not sentimental people. They are down-to-earth, hardworking, people who are rather quiet about their youth. They are not secretive, nor do they refuse to talk about their past, but when I ask them, they say there is nothing interesting to talk about; they just worked hard. I wish they had childhood diaries written in hesitant handwriting, old school books and letters from friends or family from their youth but they do not. I like to know about them before I knew them, not because I am nosy, but because I am interested in who they are, who they were, and I want to be able to tell my children stories about their great-grandparents when they are older.
My grandparents in 1954
During a trip to my village in the Champagne region last summer, I convinced my Mamie (grandmother) to look for photos with me. We spent the whole afternoon in her loft rummaging through shoe boxes, putting aside photos that had nothing to do with our family, chatting away, labelling photographs that were relevant to us and our family history and selecting about a hundred I was to scan so that they would never get lost, whatever happened to the originals.
It was probably the best afternoon I have ever spent with my Mamie, and the photographs made her talk so much about her, her background and her family that I feel I know her a little bit better now, and I feel we are even closer now than we were before.
Mamie and her family
The photos we talked about ranged from pictures of my great-grandfather in the army in Lebanon (Syria at the time) almost a century ago (1920, picture below) to pictures of my grandparents’ growing romance in the 1950s, to snapshots of them doing what I have always seen them do: working in their beloved vines.
Mamie told me about her village, explained why she had to go to boarding school, spoke about her parents’ life as bakers. They were not all happy, cheerful testimonies of my grandparents’ past, but I wanted to hear all the anecdotes, happy and sad, and being able to put faces to some family members I had heard about brought my family history to life.
We found a picture (above) of her brother Marc with his twin sister Thérèse, who passed away at the very young age of six months. It was sad talking about it, and discussing the death of another sibling, Bernard. These are not happy memories, but they are part of Mamie’s past all the same, a testimony of an era when infant death was not so uncommon, when people were still raw after surviving two World Wars, when life was tough.
When Beanie was born just over three years ago and we shared her name with my family, my Mamie told me it had been the name of her own grandmother, and it gave even more sense to my little girl’s own name, especially since Mamie’s gran had been such a gentle, kind person. It was a big surprise to find a picture (below) of her in the loft, especially since Mamie had no recollection of having that photograph. Despite our choice of name being completely coincidental, I am proud of the fact my little girl shares her name with someone who was so influential in the life of my Mamie.
Here are a few more of my favourites:
My great-grandfather’s car, at the back of the bakery the family was running
My great-grandfather’s brother in the army in 1923. Can you spot the pets there?
My Papy (grandfather)’s parents’ wedding in the early 1930s
Maman (my mum) in 1960
Go on, you can do it too! Look for family photos, have those nostalgic discussions with your loved ones, find out about your own heritage and scan those photos. I know this kind of things is not a priority or an important item on a to-do list. With our busy lives, we do not have time to look for pictures, find out exactly who is in them, or where they were taken and scanning them one by one with the best resolution possible can be a tedious job, but once it is done, they can be shared easily with family members, and more importantly, you can look at them again and again without having to fumble in a dusty loft. Photos fade over time, get lost or thrown away and it is important to preserve these precious memories.
Have you stumbled upon old photos recently? What anecdotes did you hear after finding them? Let me know in a comment below!