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Family History: Snapshots in Time

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I live among the dead and I have never felt so alive. My brother brought a mother lode of old family photos, childhood memories and vintage landmarks over to my house. The night he brought the pictures to me I wept; I was so overwhelmed by seeing my past life in photos that all those moments flooded back to me. I was a child again and so much promise and possibility lay ahead of me.

Oh, if I’d only known then…

I am happier than I have ever been in my life today, don't get me wrong, yet I know I could have done more with the gifts God gave to me and I certainly could have been better to my family. Now I can only look at their faces frozen in time on little square pieces of photographic paper.

I miss them all and even the ones I don't know make me wonder what it was like for them coming to America from Italy – afraid, poor, and unable to speak English. They must have sought out other Italians after being herded through Ellis Island like cattle, with their pride ripped from their hearts and shame on their faces as strangers changed their names because they were "too hard to pronounce." They were here now – America, the promised land!

We have a picture of great-grandmother and her family taken in the late 1800s, a lithograph. An old Italian soldier stands in the back row. I'm afraid we will never know his name or story now. The woman on the bottom left is my great-aunt. She looks eerily exactly like my mother, as if reincarnation were true.

Many birthdays and Christmases are photographed – all those special occasions that warranted the expense of a picture; not like with today's digital camera that allows you to photograph every moment in your life, significant or not. In our family, money was precious and they paid dearly to capture their loved ones on film.

Every picture of every wedding ever performed, whether the marriage lasted or not, is here at home with me now, and every photo of every birthday and Christmas present I ever opened and every candle my brother or I blew out on every cake my Grandmother and mother baked with love and pride just for us!

I have these pictures in a digital form now on my computer as a screen saver. They float past my peripheral vision like silent ghosts and beckon me to write.

There are many pictures of which I have no memory because I was not yet born. Many of the people that sit quietly staring at the camera lens are no longer of this world. I cannot interview them. I can only speculate about what they might have thought or how they might have felt about their new lives in America.

That they loved was obvious, but that they also felt pain was visible in many of the shots taken of them. Some have startled looks while others look tired, worn out, and weary after a long day making little pay in their shops and the factories in our little town.

My grandfather owned a shoe store. Every day he sat alone in the window of his little shop. In the morning, he would sit at his special sewing machine and make a pair of fine Italian leather handcrafted shoes, and every night he would take that same pair of shoes apart until someone finally came into the store and bought them. Now he could go out and buy another piece of leather to make two pairs of shoes!

I have pictures of my grandpa, grandma, and father shortly before their deaths. You could almost see the shadows around their shoulders and the way they held tentatively to this world.

Life, even if you are healthy, is brief.

I scanned pictures taken by my mother of the Lockport Canal in 1960. These pictures are of the ships as they churned and bobbed past the crowds on the docks making their way in the murky water to moor so they could be relieved of their bulge. This little trip to Lockport was taken with my brother Fred and my cousin Georgiann. I also have a little photo of us riding on the train.

My Dad could not be there because he had to work at the little Mom & Pop store he and my mom ran. It was called the B & E, and he was always there working to give us everything he never had for himself as a child, and like all children, we had no idea of the sacrifices he was making in his life for us.

I found some really old photos of Niagara Falls with a cable strung across through a gondola-shaped bucket that suspended the tourists above the spectacular landmark that is one of the many wonders in this world, right here in our backyard practically. Oh, how scary that picture looks!

I share these fleeting images and remember those who came before me, the sacrifices they made and dreams they gave up so that I might have a better life right here and now in America, the promised land.

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About Jeannie Danna

  • Another great piece of social history, Jeannie. You and Horace Mungin are my fave new writers on Blogcritics.

  • I’ll second. It’s amazing that Horace’s “Phantom” piece received so little attention. The quality of writing, alone, should recommend itself to everyone.

  • Jeannie,

    I think you should seriously consider finding an agent. You do have some great pieces to submit. And you could string these vignettes together to make a nice book.

  • Clavos

    Once again, a very nice piece, Jeannie. You are a gifted writer.


  • Your writing reminds me of Susan Minot, especially “Evening,” both book and film.

    Also check Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.”

  • Good piece, Jeannie. I wrote something similar on my own blog a while back – inspired by the stories told, the memories shared between generations, though, rather than by photos. Still, I acutely get your sense of the ghosts of those who have passed.

  • Omg! Thank you Christopher! (I can call you by your first name now,huh) I love it here at BC actually having an editor, Diana Hartman, to help me learn the craft of writing and I am also having a blast over at Clavos’s article in the comment section: debating and debating and debating… Now I can write and bitch! It is a dream come true.

  • Roger, Thank you for those wonderful words! Now how much would an agent cost? ha ha Actually I do hope someday to write a book. I have to take it one step at a time for right now…I will go read Horace Mungin’s “phantom” tonight.

  • Clavos, I really want to thank you for reading my essay today! We got into it a bit yesterday and I was afraid I’d lost your ear. I love that conversation thread you have going! It forces me to keep writing and trying to correct my sentence structure. I am always open to constructive criticism because it will help me in the end to become a better writer. “now get back over there!” 🙂

  • Just make a few submission, Jeannie, to some people. If they like your work, you paid from proceeds once you publish – 15% tops.

  • Thank you Dr.Dreadfull!, we haven’t met yet but I will come over to visit…

  • SD

    Jeannie…you have a following!! Congratulations. I will look for the pic of your grandfather in front of the store. I know I have it on a disc somewhere. Susie

  • Jordan Richardson

    I’d like to second Christopher’s remarks. Horace is a vital component to the BC community and his work is astounding.

    Jeannie keeps cranking out inspiring pieces that continue to motivate me to get better at my own work and branch out. I am honoured to be able to read your work and offer my gratitude that you have elected to share it with us here.

    Looking forward to the next one. And yes, you did finally draw some tears.

    I watched HBO’s The Alzheimer’s Project tonight and a full picture of just how vital our memories are came into view for me. Coupling that documentary with your piece was far too much for me and I began to realize that I’ve ignored my own family’s history far too long.

    Your article doubled me over with shame and regret, but it also filled me with hope in the knowledge that it’s never too late to begin to appreciate the past and your family, no matter what the complications may be.

    Thank you, Jeannie.

  • Thank You Jordan! now I’m blushing.. I went over and read Phantom by Horace Mungin yesterday and his words made me ashamed of just how ignorant this country is. Yes Jordan, unpatriotic words coming from an American USAF Vet and I don’t really care if my punctuation sentence structure is perfect, it is what’s in my soul that I must reveal. Not how much money my parents had or didn’t have to fund an “ivy league education.”
    Horace Mungin is going to be remembered as a great American writer in this world and I don’t deserve to be put in the same sentence with him!

  • Sue, Do you believe it! I would love to have a pic of Grandpa at the “Arcade Shoe Store” oh man…do I feel a blog coming on! 🙂

  • Jeannie,

    This was an excellent read and a great article. I’m glad to see you have help and enjoy debating. This is, as Roger pointed out, social history, and belongs rightly in the Culture section.

    The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” has as its subtheme, the integration of Italian-Americans into the small towns of upstate New York. The political ramifications of this integration, like how it affects politics and power in cities like Troy, Albany or Schennectady, would be history as well, but would belong in the Politics section.

    Anyway, these are not for you to worry your head over. Enjoy writing and pouring your heart out. You have a great voice and a nice, story-teller’s way with words.