Saving the mystery women.

Last year I spent quite a few hours sorting through photos of several generations of ancestors, my late husband’s family and mine, plus those of our own immediate family, children and grandchildren. I barely made a dent in the collections!

My husband’s family seems to have taken more photographs of their relations, and saved many more than people on my side have done. And while my siblings keep and store some of our relatives’ pictures, I am the sole curator of those that were passed to us from my in-laws and their in-laws, and so forth.

It wasn’t too hard to find at least a thousand pictures that could be put in the trash. It pains me to say that, because an image of a human made in the image of God feels like it retains something of the holiness of that connection, and it doesn’t seem right to be disrespectful of it. That shows that I come from a generation before digital images. I discard those with abandon.

Many that I tossed, however, were of such poor quality that I couldn’t see the faces, and quite a few were superfluous, because of there being much better or identical pictures of those people in existence. I have many more to purge, hopefully this year, but I have sifted through the oldest ones.

Among the boxes of pictures coming from my husband’s family, the third category that I needed to discard was this: Women who were unidentified, and did not match any pictures of known relations. Yes, there were also some mystery men, but they did not impress me in any way. Most didn’t look composed, or handsome. I felt differently about the women, I suppose because I am a woman.

Were they distant cousins? College friends? Maiden aunts? No one in my family knew them, no one cares about them. They all sleep in death. But — I did care about them. A hundred years ago they meant something to someone in our family, and since it is so easy to save digital images, I laid their paper pictures out on the carpet and took group photos.

I hope that each of them is known by name by someone somewhere, friends or descendants who have copies of these photos that that they won’t throw in the trash for a while yet. My curiosity about them is curious, these who represent thousands and billions who no longer walk the earth, most of whom never had their picture taken. But even if they are all forgotten by us living humans, God does know about them. And I, briefly, knew them ever so slightly….

11 thoughts on “Saving the mystery women.

  1. I love this post, Gretchen. I’m dealing with the same thing now — and the mysteries of who the heck some of those people are! Some of the photos are so beautiful or so poignant. I’ve tossed many, too — and have that same feeling you mentioned. The sad fact is that with my dad’s family, after I’m gone, no one will care. Not Rick’s boys or my cousins, all on my mom’s side. And yet some of those people were so important to me — if for nothing else than without them, I wouldn’t be here. There’s much food for thought here and I loved this piece.


  2. The old photos are beautiful. I think I would have a hard time getting rid of them!

    Google once had a desktop program called Picasa that did a great job of guessing who people are in photos. On the genealogy websites that I poke into now and again, it seemed like a good number of people used that to get better guesses as to who subjects were. Google discontinued Picasa, but I’m sure there are other programs that do it (Even my Corel Paintshop from ten years ago has this built in to the larger program, though the interface isn’t nearly as nice as with Picasa.)


  3. SO lovely. This made me think of a movie I saw recently while flying. The newer Children’s movie Coco. It portrays the joy the departed experience when being remembered by those still living on earth. You’ve blessed a lot of people with this post!


  4. Photographs back then were so beautiful and special. You are blessed to have them to go through. It is sad that they are forgotten to us in modern times. But yes, God remembers them…even each hair on their heads. How He keeps track of us all, I cannot even fathom!


  5. Your mystery women went straight to my heart, Gretchen! I have packets of old snapshots bought at antique stores for decades, usually either set at Christmas or ones to add to my collection of soldiers with their girlfriend or wife. I spend hours looking at them and puzzling out what their story would be. Thankfully, my husband is fascinated by them too. But I only have a handful of the kind like yours that are my ancestors and the true “portrait” kind. Their solemn faces seem like they’re trying to tell me something but probably they’re only wishing they could get their picture taking over with because there’s dinner to start, right?


  6. Compared to the number of old photos of unknown women, possibly related, that you have, I only have a handful. Still I wonder who they are. I doubt any of my children will be interested in keeping them. I’ll have to deal with them sooner or later.


  7. What a lovely post. It is so frustrating to have a great portrait but no info, not even a name. The feeling of finding ONE great portrait of an ancestor can be significant, but knowing that no more can ever be captured can make it difficult to for me to toss out even the bad ones. I agree, it is easy to delete digital pics with abandon. And most especially I agree with your assessment that even if no one alive knows these people, God does. That is most important; but it is nice to have sharp images of a few!


  8. What treasures these are!

    Funny to think these old photos may have been taken just for you. You are the one who keeps them and looks at them. Just for you.


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