‘Lovely lady’

Many posts ago, I bemoaned the fact that I had (and have) many photographs of unknown people, animals, and landscapes. I have always been lucky enough to have all these albums and bins, even if I can’t put names to faces, or labels to albums. I’ve learned a little about how to date clothing and surroundings, hairstyles and hats, and poses and props.

So it was with smug satisfaction and great glee years before reality set in that I retrieved a negative from its tightly curled state. Knowing who it was, I had it developed, and a safety negative prepared. A tall, statuesque lady of perhaps the Victorian era appeared in the resulting print. Although it was of poor quality, after it was nicely framed it made a personal gift for my father that Christmas.

The following conversation took place when he unwrapped it:

Dad: This is great!

Me: I thought you’d like it! It’s a print of one of those old, tightly curled negatives I found.

Dad: It’s wonderful, but . . . who is it?

Me: What do you mean “who is it?” It’s Nana Hayward, your grandmother!

Dad: No, it isn’t. Lovely lady, but she’s not my grandmother.

Dad’s reaction to the photo made me take a closer look at it, and I realized that the high ceilings shown were too high to be located in either of my family homes in Maine; perhaps it was taken at Nana Hayward’s apartment in Chicago. Perhaps it was a family friend who lived there.  Perhaps . . . perhaps.

“Lovely lady, but she’s not my grandmother.”

We’ve never found out who that lady in the photo is, but Dad had a great time taking it around the neighborhood, showing it to all his friends for consideration and debate, but never figuring out her identity. Now that I am wiser by default and experience, I know not to just assume I know what I’m talking about, to always verify as much as possible the identities of the people in the photos I have before committing myself, and to be grateful when I get it right.

I didn’t display much gratitude at first, but my percentage is improving! I’m still laughing!

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

5 thoughts on “‘Lovely lady’

  1. Jan, great story! Many years ago, my mother’s oldest sister was going through old photo albums, and came across one showing several men in military uniforms, each holding a rifle. I asked her who they were, and she stated they were her grandmother’s brothers during the Civil War. She did not recall their names, but even after I reminded her none of them were born until after the war, she still insisted they were Union soldiers. I intend to research military uniforms to see if I can determine the context, and the identity of these men. Yet another mystery to unravel!

  2. Oh Jan, this is why we are kindred spirits! (For all those many nameless faces we shepherd along and the pictures we inherit whether we choose to or not!) And by the way, she certainly is a lovely lady, one of which any good family would be most proud of. I have taken to giving some of my “unknowns” names just because I need to refer to them with something until I can (lol) identify them. My problem is I want to call all of the women “Maude” and all of the men “Clark.” I know you will get this one figured out – I just know it! Thanks for a great post –
    Jeff

  3. Jan: Great story. I have several pictures of elderly ladies arm in arm standing outside a house. I think I know the last names of the ladies, but struggle with first names. Naturally there is no one longer alive to help me out with “Oh, that’s……” We will have eternal mysteries trying to complete a genealogy. It never ends!

  4. I have inherited a boxful of beautifully preserved photo portraits which I refer to as “Secrets of the Dead”. Every so often I connect a name with a face, but it is a rare occurance indeed!

  5. Jan, great story, but glad there was someone still alive to correct your assumption of the lady’s identity! I too inherited a box of negatives, some of which I could match up with their “positives” that I also had. Luckily none of the “orphan” negs had curled up, and I was able to “develop” them with my scanner and image editing program. Some were worth the effort, as it meant many “new” photos of recognizable family members. Others were a waste of time and trouble, i.e. groups of young people at a swimming hole with no clue to who or where.

    Another lesson learned, not from negatives but studio portraits or snapshots, was that every person labelled “Aunt” or “Uncle Such & Such” was not necessarily a relative, but only a beloved friend or neighbor. My baby book contained snaps of me as an infant and toddler over several years with an elderly couple labeled “Grandpa and Grandma” who were really only our next door neighbors. Were I a vindictive person, I wouldn’t bother to add a correction and enjoy the prospect of laughing at my descendants trying to figure out where they fit on the family tree, as I suspect some of my ancestors have done in the past over some of my misguided efforts! But I’m not, so I did.

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