A few years ago I was searching desperately for clues about my father’s family. That was my last name and I knew very little of it. My Jarok grandparents both lived well into their 90s, but he with Alzheimer’s and she too obstinate to ever suffer a hearing aid. I don’t think I asked them a single question that had a logical response. It wasn’t the storybook life that I saw in other families.
He passed on late on the spring of 1990. She, eleven years his junior, left us in the fall of 2004. Then my father was gone just a year later. Suddenly my father’s story would be told by my mom and a couple of crusty picture albums. I don’t think that was the obituary he had planned out. John Jarok was an independent sort, a true Connecticut Yankee, who didn’t want to rely on others to do what he could have done himself. But he bet on time and like most of us will, he lost.
In a rare, familial, moment we looked at my grandmother’s pictures once. I was still little, but I recall being amazed simply at the age of the pictures. My grandparents were young and sturdy even if they were creepily frozen in a bygone era. None of them looked particularly like my dad or my brother or me, but they weren’t shot in the soaking color of the late 1980s. These pictures were already eighty or more years old. Then we put them away and forgot about them. My grandparents fizzled back into old people again.
I came around the block again searching for anything to do with that family. Genealogy had become more than a hobby and I had collected a fair amount of information on the Jaroks, enough to locate them in places across the timeline of the twentieth century. Well, I bumped into one of my dad’s first cousins online. She was aware of me as she was the daughter of my grandmother’s favorite brother and had gotten a picture of our family here and there over the years. In my travels I was able to sit down with cousin Dorothy and learn much about my grandmother’s family while sharing these photographs that had unintentionally been left to me. It was a story, though, that she told me that gave me a new outlook on genealogy that I could never frame properly on my own.
I wasn’t quite as young as she and her sisters were when their father died. It became a struggle for her mother to stay in New York. One sister got married at sixteen and took off. The others stayed with their mother, but it was clear that things were changing. Dorothy’s mother remarried and they moved everything across country to Phoenix. When the moving van got there they realized between them that they didn’t have enough money to pay for it. When the van left with most of their material possessions they only then realized it also had all of their family pictures.
What destroys a picture? No doubt having it left to the wind that blows through garbage piles is a sad ending to our frozen scenes. It hurts to watch those old photos crumble away when you think of the care that was taken in creating them long ago. People would dress in their finest clothes. Maybe those suits and dresses had been re-hemmed a couple times over, but they were the best a delivery man’s wages could deliver. The whole family would travel to the photographer’s studio. In the early days of photography you might have to sit for around a minute to allow the photo to expose correctly. My grandmother who lived in the same house for over thirty years while growing up was left with five pictures of her childhood (and three were school pictures).
Those were no doubt different times, but the question hasn’t been answered. When pictures are hidden away they are effectively destroyed. I could take a million dollars and buy a 1933 Ford. I would get the best costume designer who had intimate knowledge of 1930s fashion. Carpenters would build a set. We’d get a dog and a fantastic makeup artist. The scene photographer would make sure all but one person was holding a wine glass in their right hand. We’d have a perfect recreation of Kingston, New York on July 4, 1937. Hell, I’d even throw in some fireworks. For everything I could do, I still couldn’t tell you who those six people are standing to the right of my grandmother.
Time destroys families when knowledge remains hidden, when faces are left to dust. Deduction is the game. My grandmother was no detective. She was just a 28-year-old lady looking to spend a hot summer day outside of the city with her cousins, eat a sandwich, drink some berry wine. She somehow wound up becoming my grandmother. I was no detective, no writer when that happened, but I am now. My family won’t be destroyed any longer. I can rebuild them picture by hidden picture.