Memorial Day in this country is traditionally a time when families gather together to celebrate the day, to share the memories of days gone by and to make new ones and to honor those who came before us. In my family, Memorial Day meant a car trip to the little country cemetery in Missouri where relatives from my mother’s family were buried. We’d place artificial flowers on the graves, chat with other friends and family members who had also assembled at the cemetery that day and then have ‘supper’ at my great aunt’s farm-house before driving the 45 miles back to my hometown. As a kid, it wasn’t always a trip that I enjoyed, but as an adult, I now cherish the memories of those Memorial Days.
Last weekend, I attended a memorial service for my dear uncle in Phoenix. While there, I looked at lots and lots of photographs, both studio portraits and snapshots, taken of my aunt and uncle’s family through the years, including many of my own immediate family. Sifting through all those pictures brought both tears and smiles. It reminded me, once again, how priceless and treasured all those images illustrating a person’s lifetime are to those left behind when a loved one passes on.
I was thinking of that the other day, while working in my studio when Eileen Andersen, one of my family portrait clients, appeared at my studio door. I photographed Eileen’s family last autumn. I had also made a 40th anniversary portrait of Eileen and her husband, Richard Studebaker.
Eileen and I had quickly connected during her portrait planning session. The reason she wanted a professional family portrait, she explained to me then, was because she had been working on her family genealogy. (Eileen is a retired school librarian so no doubt her research is very thorough.) She was captivated by all the information she was uncovering and by the photos of faces from her past, faces of those whom she came to know as she continued to dig deeper into her family’s history. Then, she told me, she realized that she had no professional family portrait of her own family to pass down to the generations that would come after her. That’s when she phoned my studio for an appointment.
Like Eileen, I too am fascinated with my own family history. Thanks to a distant cousin, my family tree on maternal grandfather’s side of the family dates back to the 1500s. They immigrated from Sweden in the 1860s to the United States. As a result of the cousin’s research, I personally know my family who live in Sweden. We met years ago when my aunt, who is now deceased, and I made our first trip to ‘the home country.’ It was, my aunt told me, as if she was completing the journey back for her grandmother who had always hoped to one day return to see the family that had remained there.
My Swedish cousins and I have both visited each other at our respective homes and keep in touch, originally by mail but not electronically by e-mail and Facebook. I realize that it’s a privilege for an American, whose families immigrated to this country generations ago, to possess this kind of extensive information about one’s ancestors and to actually know their descendants living today.
That’s one reason why, both Eileen and I, place such value on the portraits of those long since gone and why the portraits of those so dear to us bring us comfort, smiles and a few tears. And it’s another reason why Memorial Day is, for me, so memorable.