Wednesday, January 7, 2009
My family didn't come over on the Mayflower. I don't come from a long line of aristocrats whose family stories have been documented in countless biographies or cinematic epics. No, the history of both sides of my family is pretty much the same as most Americans. At some point our ancestors took a boat over from their motherland and made their lives in the United States.
They were hard working Irish (well, sorta), Swedish and English folks who did what they had to do to earn a living and raise a family. I wish it had been different; I could totally see myself as a Rockefeller or a duPont, living in a mansion, enjoying the good life, reflecting on my family's history, and looking back on old family photographs.
But since I don't have that, I've had to be a little more resourceful. I buy my ancestors at flea markets and auctions. It's true, instant ancestors can be had in the form of photographs for a few bucks at any antique store or flea market in this great country. Because my grandparents and great-grandparents were too busy earning a living and settling in this country there wasn't much time or money to document their lives through photographs and scrapbooks, so there are very few family photos being passed down through the generations.
Which must be one of the reasons why I feel so compelled to buy lots of old photos of people I don't know. About 15 years ago I stood in the blazing sun at an estate auction in Southern Maryland for hours for the chance to buy a box lot of photographs and family letters written by a woman to her children. The letters documented her family's lives and described in great detail their history; from relatives fighting in wars to when her family had slaves. It was fascinating reading and I could not believe no one in the family wanted to keep its history intact. I paid $30 for what was in my mind, a privilege, to safeguard the history of one family. And although I was thrilled to be the highest bidder, it also made me very sad. It broke my heart to think no one cared enough to save it. There's a part of me that hopes my own family's history, which is not quite as epic as the Rockefellers, but certainly not without its own drama, doesn't end up at an auction; up for grabs to the highest bidder.
So, I'll keep creating my wall montage of instant ancestors, one auction at a time, and maybe, just maybe those sweet souls staring back at me in the photographs will know that someone wanted them.
In the meantime, say hello to my new ancestors. I bought them at an auction today. Good looking, aren't they? It runs in the family.........