Recently I haunted some local antique shops in search of an antique clay billiard ball. Before you get hung up on my choice of objective…my great grandfather owned billiard parlors in the 1880’s and I thought it would be a neat talisman. Bent and peering into the countless, long display cases filled with thimbles and cobbler tools, children’s toys and stereopticons, old shoes and skates, flour sifters and worn rolling pins (but NO billiard balls), I rose and stretched my aching back when I noticed a box full of antique photos sitting on top of one of the cases. Most of the photos were 6 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ cabinet cards and were for sale at $1.50 each.
“Cab cards” were first introduced in 1866 for horizontal views and reached popularity in the 1880’s as portraits frequently taken at Christmas time and sent to family and friends. I have my own collection of cab cards which are portraits of my ancestors. They have been protected and treasured by their descendants for a century and a half and now I am their conservator. I have scanned them to create digital images to share with all of my family and each individual was long ago identified for the knowledge of future generations thanks to my great grandmother and my mother.
It wasn’t without a sentimental heart that I looked upon each photo and wondered how in the world such treasures would be orphaned and for sale to strangers. And what would any stranger do with such an intimate token? Still I flipped through the box…looking for…what? A photographers stamp…from Ithaca, New York? from Auburn? Canandaigua? Cazenovia? Palmyra? Is that a familiar nose..chin…or are those eyes a defining family feature? Who is this fine gentleman sporting a watch and fob? And the lovely woman with upswept hair and with the tiniest slippered foot peeking from beneath her billowing skirt. Oh the children…with the dearest faces…some of which still bear the faintest pink tint on their little cheeks and who I supposed had grown up to know the turn of the century and the scourge of the Spanish flu and World War I…the thrilling advent of the automobile and the wonder of electricity. Children who would grow up and have families of their own. Who are you?
I must have been at the counter for a long time and attracted the notice of the store owner. I had long abandoned the search for the clay billiard ball and stood transfixed with the panorama of faces and the lost family history in the old box. I wondered who would buy someone else’s history and why. With that lingering thought capturing my attention I barely noticed the shop owner at my elbow and was startled when I finally became aware of her presence. Simultaneously we both laughed at my reaction. “Did you find anything interesting?”, she asked. Silly question, I thought. My historian’s heart and my writer’s brain had spun a hundred stories from the images I held in my hand. Interesting? Captivating was a better word.
But the shop owner was looking for a buyer…not an historian author. Forget the warm tender thoughts. Cold, hard cash, please. Yet she surrounds herself with the totems of the past as her livelihood. She wasn’t selling cell phones and iPads. She had to “know”. And I had to ask. “Why are you selling these?” “Who buys them? And Why?”
“People decorate with them.” “It’s a look.” Decorate? A look? Really?
Are images of my ancestors in a box somewhere…for sale for $1.50?
For a brief moment I considered offering her $50 for the whole box…cold hard cash, right? After all, she might sell one or two a month..and this WAS fifty bucks. CASH. I learned the picker’s technique of bundling from watching Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz on the History Channel’s “American Pickers”. But Mike and Frank were making money…not just rescuing old treasures. Darn. And what would I do with a boxful of strangers? Even with the expansive exposure of the internet and maybe creating a website with the hope of finding an interested descendant, the odds would be ridiculous. How about “IsthisYOURgrandmother.com.”? Riiiight. It would be a needle in a haystack effort and I definitely could not bring myself to put them on eBay so someone could achieve a “look”.
Regretfully I left the store…without finding the antique clay billiard ball and without pointlessly buying a box of stranger’s heritage. What I did come away with was a renewed commitment to genealogy and history. I pulled out my family treasures and put my favorite family cabinet cards in floating frames that now surround me on the walls. Generations of photos have joined them. When I research and write, my great great grandparents look over my shoulder and inspire me. My great grandparents comfort me when I hit a brick wall. My grandparents celebrate with me when I find that elusive clue. My parents and aunts and uncles reassure me that my work is important. My children and my grandchildren remind me to enjoy life.
My little granddaughter had her first overnight with me over the weekend. She is just shy of three and a bright little girl full of curiosity for her grandmother’s things. Perched at my kitchen counter and spooning a huge glob of yogurt into her mouth, she managed to ask, “Who is that, Grammie?” I followed the direction of her gaze and found she had fixed on the nearest grouping of frames featuring three generations of my…her…family.
Though she is just a small child…she wanted to know…and holding back from my normal drive to tell a long story, I explained who they were in the simplest way. I was sure that the history of it was not of importance to her young mind and I decided to just say…”this is our family”. It was the right thing to say. She continued to fill her mouth with yogurt and berries and her eyes wandered over the images. I wiped her sticky face and fingers and before she hopped down from her vantage point, she said, “I like them, Grammie.” Me, too. Amelia. Me, too.