I own a beat-up tintype of two grim, slouching people, a man and a woman. They’re seated side-by-side facing forward. Both are dressed in black and stare unsmiling into the lens of the camera. They aren’t touching, aren’t holding hands. Her hands are clasped in her lap.
It’s hard to tell ages in photos that old. People not only looked old at an earlier age, but they thought old, dressed old and acted old sooner than we do today. This couple might be 80, just like me.
Then again, they might be in their 50s.
When she was younger than I am, my grandmother wore long shapeless flowered garments that zipped up the front, called housedresses. While she was working at home during the day, cleaning, cooking and taking care of the household, she rolled her nylon stockings down below her knees and secured them with fat elastic blue garters that made deep dents in the flesh of her calves. Stockings came in twos back then, one for each leg.
My grandmother didn’t own a pair of jeans or shorts or a T shirt or athletic shoes or tights or pantyhose. She wore heavy black thick-heeled lace-up shoes and (nearly always, it seemed) an apron. When she got dressed up she chose a nondescript dark dress, a black coat and a black felt hat with a small brim. She secured the hat by poking a long sharp hatpin through it, then threading the pin through her hair.
After her five children were grown and settled, one Mother’s Day they all chipped in to buy her a mink wrap. She wasn’t thrilled with it – “Oh, for goodness’ sake, what do I need with a fur stole?” -- and hardly ever wore it. It was made of a half dozen whole pelts -- complete mink skins strung together in a semicircle. The minks had beady little glass eyes, open mouths with sharp teeth, and little leathery ears and noses. Each set of minky teeth was clamped tightly on the tail of the animal in front of it -- as if they were imitating circus elephants lined up trunk-to-tail-to-trunk-to-tail, ready for a parade.
Mink wraps offered wonderful diversions for small children during boring church services. If the lady in the pew in front of you was wearing one of those pelt parades, you could lean forward and wag the little tails and wiggle the little feet and poke your fingers in the little eyes and stick pencils up the little noses until an adult smacked your hand away.
But I digress.
The unsmiling tintyped couple are probably my relatives. They aren’t particularly attractive or even interesting-looking. I have no idea who they are or why their photo was stored in the boxes of stuff that settled in my basement after my parents died. I’m an only child, so I got it all: the good, the bad, the junk, the odd, the ugly. The Tintype of the Unknowns.
Most of it, unlabeled.
I don’t know what to do with these people. Their dark, shapeless clothing is rumpled. The woman’s hair is parted in the middle and gathered unattractively in little circlets over her ears, like hairy earphones. She has dark shadows under her eyes and she looks tired. He looks like he needs a shampoo and a shave.
Should I toss them? Should I keep them? Should I sell them on E-Bay? Should I pass them on to my children, who are one more generation removed from knowing who they were?
There is a lesson here. If you have family photos and memorabilia, for God’s sake, label everything you can. Write down the names of the people you know for sure and a short description of what they did and where they belong on the family tree, i.e. “The lady with the oversized shoulder pads and the bad complexion is Aunt Fritzie. She was Dad’s mother’s brother’s oldest daughter. Married to Grover, who had a heart attack and died young. No children. Fritzie remarried a traveling salesman known as Big Al and moved to Walla Walla.”
From that same box of my parents’ belongings, I uncovered an 8mm movie projector and a reel of film labeled simply: “1938.” I had it transferred to DVD about 10 years ago, even though I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it might be.
To my surprise, it turned out to be a conglomeration of jumpy, grainy, faded movies taken at my parents’ wedding. So I typed up a commentary, naming all the people I was sure of, the places I could identify and every bit of family history related to those scenes that I could recall.
Some day in the future, I hope my children, grandchildren and maybe my great-grandchildren will be grateful for the footage from June 25, 1938 and the information I supplied.
Perhaps they’ll consider it priceless.
Photo above, from left, grandsons Teddy and TJ. Below, from left, grandson Nick, granddaughters Sarah and Amanda, and great-grandchildren Benjamin and Abigail.