Life Lessons: Documenting Family History

Photo Projects, Preserving Old Photographs

1941_WmAGallagherJrc 1941_WmAGallagherJrc2B

The process of restoring old photos is time-consuming and requires an artist’s eye and hand.  But it’s well worth the effort when you’re holding onto the surviving images of a cherished loved ones.  This is my father as he looked when he met my mother.  He was 12 years old.

Isn’t it ironic that the older we get the more interested we are in history?

At least that’s the way it is for me.  No doubt typical in my adolescence, I found the subject a boring mish-mash of names, dates and places, which seemed to prove that people just keep doing the same things over and over.  Greed. Repression. Famine. War.  Escape. Exploration. Followed by more of the same.  Greed. Repression. Famine. War.   Who cares?  Nobody seems to learn anything from it, so why should I?

Little did I know that my youthful nescience was proving philosopher George Santayana’s observation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  I didn’t have any idea who George Santayana was.  I recently learned the sentence following that quote in Santayana’s 1906 volume Reason in Science reads: “In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children…”  That was me, all right!

My father cared about history.  For him, it was a fascinating story of the human family.  He saw the slow progress of humanity as an unfolding of wisdom. And he understood that the key to success in any era is simple:

Be kind.

It’s no wonder, then, that my foray into documenting family history began with our Dad.  Since I did not begin the process of sorting through the photos and papers until after Mom had also passed, I relied on memory, oral tradition and some original documents like military records, their first mortgage and some family photos going back two generations.

Since I have eight siblings, I wanted to prepare something that could be easily duplicated.  Duplicating the photos and scanning the documents was the obvious first step.  The challenge in dealing with old materials is complicated by the lack of care they have received over the years.  Retouching photos is time-consuming and requires an artist’s touch.

While tracing his family roots through census records, reading historical maps, newspapers and even text books, I learned of our family’s escape from repression and the Irish potato famine, exposure to the Tammany Hall Riots and conscription into the American Civil War.  Subsequent generations were laborers and nurses, some ancestors were sent to live in a ‘home for the destitute’, others joined the Navy—as did my father.  His service was brief, but it was active during the early years of the Korean War. My dad was the first of his family to graduate from college.   On his modest salary he fed, clothed and educated nine children.

The project of documenting Dad’s family history was fascinating.  I learned a lot about a man I thought I knew.  And typically, I found there was much more I would never know.  It was the kind of history lesson that only Dad could give.

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3 thoughts on “Life Lessons: Documenting Family History

  1. Indeed, photos many times are the base upon documenting grows…and as in many cases, the photographs have deteriorated or faded if the original was in color. Textured finished are the most difficult at times. But today’s scanners and programs are a boon to restoration. I usually take one high-rez scan to start, then re-scan but using the auto-restore a second time. While helpful, the restore mode doesn’t take care of everything and as you say, spot retouching is a very long and tedious process. Watch out for tennis elbow (repeated motions)! I got it bad.

  2. A few years back I came across an old family document from my relatives landing on Ellis Island. I found out the came from Fontanarosa, Italy. I also found out I am named after my great-grandfather Emilio, and my great-uncle Pasquale. Since then, I have become very curious as to my family’s history.

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