In 1920 an eight-year-old girl answered the door of a photography studio in New York City. She greeted the young man who was scheduled to have his portrait taken. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but my dad is the photographer and he isn’t here so I’ll take your portrait photo myself.” And she did. Except that she did not know how to take a proper portrait, so she had to fake it.
“We should have the proofs for you next week,” she said as the customer left.
The girl was my mother. Her father, the professional photographer, was my grandfather.
The way my mother used to tell this story was that her father loved to go fishing, and was not a great businessman. So from time to time he would be out fishing when customers arrived for their appointment, and she had to fill in. A few days later he would contact the customer to apologize, tell them that their photographs had not turned out well, and he would be happy to arrange another sitting.
I never asked Mom for more details. After all, she would always be available to answer my questions. Or so I assumed. Except now she isn’t, and so all that I know is what I’ve already shared with you. I suppose that the customer had previously paid for the session, so that no income was ever lost. But since I never asked, I can’t fill in the gaps.
I imagine this has happened to many of us. We waited to ask our loved ones to tell us their stories, and after they are gone we wish we had asked for more.
I thought about all this today shortly after the news broke that Kobe Bryant, the superstar professional basketball player, had died, together with one of his teenage daughters and all of the other passengers in a helicopter crash not far from where I live.
Whenever we’re with someone we love, especially our parents, we have an opportunity to form a deeper and more meaningful bond. One way to do this is to make it a point, as much as possible, to ask about family history. Since I typically live “in the moment,” I never asked my parents very much about their personal past. If you challenged me to name even one of my eight great grandparents, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Sadly, I don’t know anything about any of them.
My mom must have had photography in her blood, because she kept many scrapbooks of photos that she and my father took, especially when my brother and I were children. I have kept those albums to this day. They include photos from more than one hundred years ago – photos I now wish I had asked her about. Now I feel I’m missing important pieces of my family’s story
I do know that during the Great Depression few women attended college. Not only was my mother among a very select group that did attend – she also earned a Master’s degree from Hunter College in New York City. I know that her father was a professional photographer, and that her mother was domineering. Beyond that, I know little about my ancestors. I could look up information on the internet, but somehow that is not the same as hearing the stories firsthand.
We miss opportunities every day. Kobe was retired so now the only way to see him play professional basketball is on videos. But the opportunity to learn more about your family’s history may not come your way another time. As someone who wishes he had asked more questions, I’d like to suggest that you gather as many stories as you can. Then you’ll be able to pass those on to your children and loved ones – when, in turn, they ask you to share.
Rest in peace Mom. Rest in peace Grandpa. Rest in peace Kobe.