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52 Ancestors, No 23: The Unidentified Man

June 10, 2014


We all have them in our old photo boxes by the score: nameless, ageless people. Who are they? Are they relatives? Are they friends? Are co-workers or business partners? We’ll probably never know. This unidentified man is special to me. He’s the one who got away

He is somehow related to my paternal grandmother, my Mom-mom, or at least he associate with that family in some way. Unlike last week’s ancestor, Peter Staaf, whose photo was also left unmarked, I don’t have enough of a hunch who this person is to give him a name and a place in the tree. I feel like he was someone special to my grandmother, though. He could be one of her grandfathers. Even if he were, I couldn’t honestly guess which one.

I started gathering the family history in 2007. When I first asked my father’s parents for names and dates, Mom-mom was hesitant. I think Pop-pop later said that she once had a problem with identity theft, so she wasn’t keen on giving out vital information. In any case, she did relent and share some data on her parents and grandparents, which I later used to find census records and further documents. I asked the two of them if they had any old pictures that I might scan for my collection.

I don’t think they understood at first what I was asking for. Pop-pop directed me to his eve closet, where he stored his collection of 35mm color slides, dated from the 1950s through the 1980s. These showed he and Mom-mom in their younger days, as well as my father and uncles variously as babies, children and young adults. These were all wonderful images with vibrant color—almost like being there. My parents bought me a slide scanner, and I set about in the summer of 2008, and I set about the task of digitizing all the slides.

Great as these slides all were, I was more interested to see pictures of people I hadn’t met, like their parents and grandparents. I having scanned all of the slides, I asked them again for “old” pictures of the family. I think I remember Mom-mom turning to Pop-pop and saying something like, “Oh, he wants to see the old pictures of your family.” So Pop-pop then directed me deeper into the eve closet, to old pictures of his family, which he had buried in a large box in which an old fan once came. These were the pictures I was looking for: pictures of my Pop-pop’s parents and grandparents, many of which I’ve already featured on this blog. I set about another scanning expedition. Since the vast majority of the pictures were of my Pop-pop’s family, I had assumed that pictures of my Mom-mom’s family were not to be found.

My grandmother's great-grandfather, David Kline, front and center. My grandmother's grandmother, Cora Harrison, back, second from right.

Mom-mom identified for me her great-grandfather, David Kline, front and center, and her grandmother, Cora Harrison, back row, second from right.

It was around this time, late 2007 and through 2008, that Mom-mom began her battle with esophageal cancer, which began with the surgical removal of a portion of her esophagus. This made speaking very difficult her. Now, I did find, among the trove of pictures of my Pop-pop’s family, about three blurry photocopies of old photographs, purportedly Mom-mom’s ancestors. I showed Mom-mom this picture the night before she had gone into the hospital for the last time. She overcame her speaking difficulty to identify for me her grandmother, Cora Kline Harrison, and her great-grandfather, David Kline, from those photocopies.

Mom-mom died perhaps a month later, in November of 2008. She came home for her final days, and I was able to show her a printout of the family tree I had made for her up to that point, with little pictures of her brother, her parents, her grandmother, and her great-grandfather in the appropriate places. She was weak at this point, and couldn’t speak, but she reacted to seeing this. She would like to have said something, but I’ll never know what it was. I’d like to think that maybe she was trying to tell me that she had a whole box of photos of her own in the closet, and that she wanted to help me identify the people in them.

Later in 2009, Pop-pop had assigned to me the task of cleaning out the eave closets of things he doesn’t want and will never use—a task I’ve yet to complete. Well, wouldn’t you know it, among all of those other boxes of photos was one I hadn’t seen before, and in it were all the pictures of Mom-mom’s family that she never told me about, and that I had never seen. Pop-pop was able to identify many of the people in the photos, like friends and neighbors. Others, like the gentleman above, will have to go without identification. I showed the photo to my Mom-mom’s brother, but he was unable to identify the man, as were my Mom-mom’s cousins, Doris and Bill.

It bothers me a little bit that during all of 2008, while we were all doting over the scans I was making of Pop-pop’s family, Mom-mom never said anything like, “Hey, I have a box of pictures up there, too! See if you can find that next time you go up!” She never let on. Maybe if I showed her the printout of my family tree program earlier, she would have been inspired to identify some of these pictures. Some times I imagine having shown Mom-mom this p picture, the way I showed her the picture of David Kline. In my imagination, she looks down at this picture for about ten second before summoning the energy to explain. “This is my ________.” At that it. That’s where the fantasy ends.

Sometimes I’m tempted to fill in the blank myself. I want to just dub him “William Smith, maternal grandfather of Joan (Harrison) Graham,” and be done with it. Who will that hurt? It might annoy some future genealogist, if ever one should find a picture of the real William Smith, but so what? —Neeeh. I’m too honest. The reality is that I don’t know who this gentleman is, so for now he must continue without a name.

Many thanks to Cousin Doris, for sending that pictured photocopy to my grandmother all those years ago. Many thanks also to Pop-pop, Great-uncle Bill, and cousins Doris and William for having a crack at identifying the man.  No thanks to Mom-mom— ha ha ha! Just kidding! Many thanks to Mom-mom for leaving behind so many identifiable photos, and for being such a great Mom-mom for all those years of my youth. Nothing will ever take those memories away!

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