Treasured Memories in Family Photos From Generation to Generation

The author's grandmother kept treasured memories in family photos in a timeworn cardboard box that continues to be shared from generation to generation.
By Patsy Bell Hobson
September/October 2006

Grandmother Arvilla Johnson shot this photo of her husband (far right), her children and grandchildren. The photo was taken in Blue Eye, Missouri, in 1960 with her Brownie box camera. The author is the grinning little girl in sunglasses.
PHOTO: PATSY BELL HOBSON
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An old boot box holds treasured memories in family photos and family ties. 

When someone asks where I’m from, I don’t think of my city, state or even country. I think of an old boot box my grandmother kept under her bed. It’s my grandmother’s connection to this old box that holds treasured memories in family photos that makes me realize that it’s who, not where, I come from that really matters. For in this timeworn cardboard box, Grandmother kept our family ties together, generation layered upon generation of snapshots, studio portraits and school pictures. Maybe she took comfort in the fact that, like a mother hen, her chicks were gathered close and safe at night. Perhaps she slept better knowing her entire family was as close as that old boot box. 

Born early in the previous century, my grandmother has lived through some of humanity’s most rapidly changing times. Her life spanned a girlhood trip in a covered wagon — on a family voyage from the Arkansas Ozarks to Oklahoma — to a jet ride on a Boeing 747. There were days when the only food her family ate was what they grew and harvested from the rocky soils of the Arkansas family farm; now her grandchildren ship her fresh-picked Florida citrus or today's salmon catch from the Pacific coast.

Grandmother’s first child was born at home with the assistance of the nearest neighbor-midwife in 1931. By mid-century, the sixth child was born in a hospital. When I ask about her children’s birth certificates, her frail bent finger taps on a crackled leather-bound book. "It’s all right here," she says. "In the family Bible."

While she’s witnessed a lot of changes in her life, Grandma knows that newer isn’t always better. She has shared the chapters of her life by word-of-mouth and that Bible, shunning tape recorders, videos and movie cameras in favor of flipping through withered old photographs with grandchildren sitting on her lap. Grandmother passed family news along to us through crackling telephone party lines and slow rural route mail delivery. Last year, she sent her first Internet instant message, but was underwhelmed with the process: Gossip, she says, doesn’t travel any faster on a computer than it did on a country party-line telephone.

Grandmother knows technology has helped her as she’s aged, but that doesn’t change good old-fashioned wisdom. Life-extending medical technology has given her the opportunity to pose in family photos spanning four generations. While her six children attribute her longevity to technological developments, Grandmother also cites other important contributors to her long life: Sassafras tea every spring to thin the blood; black-eyed peas for luck each New Year’s Day; getting outdoors at every opportunity.

When looking at Grandmother’s boot box full of mostly unlabeled photographs — her only record-keeping method over the decades — I realize that it doesn’t just tie me and my parents, brothers, sisters and children to the web of our family history; it also shows how we all are connected to our nation’s history. At the bottom of that boot box lies a record of both our family and our nation, maintained through brittle black and white photographs of tired, hard-working men and women: A soldier posed proud and stiffer than his new boots before heading to what became the Civil War; the sagging shoulders of field-weary workers who survived the Dust Bowl during the 1930s; the skin-and-bones couple who raised their family during the hungry days of the Great Depression.

Up through the layers of photographs, the people gradually begin to smile more and look less weary. As more automobiles and graduation caps appear in the photos, the smiles become broader and more frequent. There are dozens of school children and newlywed couples. At the top of the picture box are fat, happy families in studio poses, wearing brand-new, store-bought clothes. With the same fair skin and pale eyes, they are not physically much different from the folks at the bottom of the box, where the tired and poor rest.

What we keep in Grandmother’s old boot box will feed our memories and fuel our dreams. It is how we live forever. The photographs show us that family is our history and our family is our future. Generation layered upon generation, a family loosely gathered.

Patsy Bell Hobson is a freelance writer from Liberty, Missouri. She knows that everything has been said and done before; the challenge is to remember it. 


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