A Few Old Photos and the Mystery of My Paternal Grandmother

by Barrett

Trying to solve the puzzle of your family’s past with a few fading pictures is hard to do. This photo of my grandfather (back center) and his friends tells a story, but I have no idea what it is. It’s time to stop history from repeating itself…

Some families maintain solid details on their past. For various reasons, others do not. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that families, large or small, are usually pretty complicated entities. And without going into too much background about mine, I should say that there were fracturing events that left certain folks estranged from others for many years… and in some cases… forever.

And then I came along, and grew up without many details on who was who… let alone actually spending time with many of my relatives.

Let’s simply say that I was born disconnected from much of my family…

With the major exception of my maternal grandmother’s side, which I’ve gotten to know well during my adult years (an amazing story for another time), I’ve had no choice but to rely on spotty intel from my now 86-year-old father.
(My mom’s been gone since 2006.)

Shoe Box Time Machine
The only other resource I have is a small collection of old family photos from my father’s side that was entirely disorganized in a shoe box and envelopes. They were mostly undated and without accompanying notes.

Over the years, I’ve digitized many of these pictures and tried to figure out some of the puzzle of my family’s past through them. Of course, I recognize the major players… my dad… and his parents. But the where and when are often unclear.

Yes, I’ve asked my father for the details… I’ve shown him the pictures multiple times. The problem is I haven’t always gotten the same answers against the same photos. So, I’ve sometimes had to rely on consistency to determine probable facts.

Figuring Out Your Origins in Old Photos
I just held another ‘photo review’ session with my dad and displayed our family photo archive to him on my iPhone while we were having dinner at the local diner. Happily, I had immediate access to the pics on my cloud family photo archive.
(More on that project here.)

I took notes on all of his responses and then brought the detail back to create more metadata for each of the original photo files. They’re officially stored in Adobe Lightroom on my iMac. I adjusted the ‘creation date’ for some of the photos, and I added my father’s new comments into the caption section.

And then I took a step back and looked at the entirety of my adjusted collection… fewer than 100 photos that comprise my father’s side of the family from 1900-1960.
(After that, I’ve got more images and information to work with.)

And let me tell you, every time I go through this exercise, I work out a few more ‘aha’ realizations.

This time, with the date adjustments and brand new background on my grandfather’s family road trip to California to visit a childhood friend, I created a new grouping of photos that brought this story to life.

I’m a detective… figuring out my own origins.

I think most everyone wants to better understand their past… their roots… the basis of their identity.

For me… it’s been one picture at a time.

The Mystery of My Paternal Grandmother
Rachel was my grandmother, and she died when my father was very young. He doesn’t remember her very well.
(I know she was a school teacher, but that’s about it.)

Rachel’s family name was Dworkin, and we have a handful of pictures from several moments of her life in New York City, including two with my father when he was a child. These photos offer clues to who she was. But you can only glean so much from a photo…

One detail I’m still working through is accurately dating her photos. There are certain anchor shots like this one where I can more easily determine the date. My dad can’t be more than two years old here… so it’s probably 1935. Then, I compare how my grandmother looks here to other shots of her to help order them chronologically…

Doomed to Repeat the Past?
I know at some point, I will have mined as much detail as possible. And this part of my family history project will be wrapped (though still very much incomplete).

But family histories are never really finished… are they?

New stories are constantly generated, and now… countless digital photos are snapped to document the lives of our families.

Our decedents should have no problem putting together this chapter of the early 21st century, because there’s so much to work with, right?

Well… I wouldn’t be so sure.

Too many photos can be overwhelming. And too many disorganized photos… almost impossible.

Sure, they’re all digitally time stamped and possibly geotagged, which is a huge benefit. But without other critical information, these pictures will have limited value in the future.

And a forgotten portable drive with archived photo files found decades later in the back of a closet may be an unrevivable dead brick. So, now you’ve gone from thousands of family photos to… zero.

3 Ways to Back Up the Memories of Your Life
I don’t have the perfect solution to creating a bulletproof photo archiving plan that will hold up into the distant future.

But it makes sense to confront the challenge on several fronts…

  • Organize your photos in the days and weeks after you snap them
  • Make photobooks at least every year to document your family’s story
  • Back up the very best of your photo files to several locations, including the cloud

And it still couldn’t hurt to print out a few photos every so often and then jot down the details on the back of them. Finally, throw these pictures into a shoebox and then hide it in the back of a closet to be discovered decades later.
(Yes, I recognize the irony.)

Future-Proof Your Family History Archive
We all want to be remembered.

Even a few photos with key information can provide a tether to the reality of a past life.

I wish I knew more about my beautiful grandmother.














She looked like she was a wonderful person.

Please… do your descendants a favor and try not to make them guess about your life…