Skip to content


September 25, 2010

The thing that made me fall in love with what I do is the vividness of working with primary source materials. It’s the voyeurism on other people’s lives that I enjoy — reading letters, looking at old pictures and films, trying to figure out what it was like to be them, and then putting it on paper. So when a relative I don’t know recently put a bunch of old family photos on line, I devoured them.

Here is my grandfather with his father posing in their bathing suits on the beach in Santa Cruz, California in 1928.

I love the bathing suits. So incredibly impractical. I love the way you can see my grandfather’s suit is damp. I love the group looking out to sea in the background, the footprints in the dry sand, the seaweed strewn across the wet sand. I love the furrow between my great-grandfather’s eyebrows and the set of his jaw, like he is trying to look handsome while staring into the sun.

Here is my grandfather with some other relatives, also at the beach, but a couple of years later.

I love the crazy pose, the joy on my grandfather’s face, the laugh on the woman behind him. I wonder about the man who volunteered to plant his face in the sand. Can he see the people walking up the beach behind him? Are the shoes by the sand castle (or is it a hole?) full of sand? The idea of dress shoes on a beach seems unimaginable.

My favorite picture, though, is this one:

This one was taken in 1929, probably in the same place. His clothes are amazing — the tweed suit that’s a little too big for him, the knit vest, the shirt and tie. His shoes look a little worn, but he is so dapper, in such contrast to the muddy, rocky beach and the industrial appeal of the pier. But the thing I love about this one is his face, which holds an expression I remember seeing on it many, many years later.

There are many more pictures. They show many years of ski trips and skating parties, drives through national parks, and hunting excursions. In all of them, they look like they are having a wonderful time. I know there’s much more to our family’s history than these pictures. There is trial and tragedy too. But in these old photos, everyone is young and beautiful and athletic and adventurous. And for a moment captured on film, everyone is happy.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    September 25, 2010 3:43 pm

    Love them! I like to collect photographs of complete strangers esp if they’re posed with animals. These are great. Did your father grow up in CA or was this a vacation?

    I can see AJ in that last one.

  2. September 25, 2010 7:03 pm

    Oh my goodness! That second picture looks like it should be My Antonia! with Jim and Antonia…

  3. September 26, 2010 11:05 am

    That love of “voyeurism,” which I usually call nosiness, is why I like teaching writing. I love reading about what other people do and see and think.

  4. September 27, 2010 10:57 am

    Jeanne, exactly. I recently came across my creative writing notebook from fifth grade. My teacher gave us great assignments — prompts, really. For one of them, we were to find a certain number of photos from magazines and build a story around them. I would have loved some photos like these. It’s what I was thinking of when I was looking through them.

    Jeanette, I was just thinking I need to reread My Antonia. Two other Cather novels have worked their way into my research (Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart), but I haven’t read My Antonia in many years.

    Freshhell, this is actually my mother’s stepfather, so no blood relation, but I agree with you about the resemblance. Mr. Spy’s family is from a similar ethnic background. Perhaps that explains it? Or maybe appearance is not just genetics, but a mix of nature and nurture. And yes, he grew up in that general area and some of the family still lives there. I also remember one time when he was showing me around San Francisco on my first trip there with one of my choirs nearly 20 years ago, that he said some of his family had lived on the hill where Coit Tower now stands.

  5. January 2, 2011 5:19 pm

    My mother tells me that in that first picture, that is not my grandfather’s father but his older brother.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: