Treasures of the Past

I had an unusual experience recently. I saw a picture of me – taken in the 19th century.  It was very unsettling. It also started a new passion to explore in my retirement.

No – the cover photo isn’t the one. You’ll have to read further to see it.

The last several weeks, I’ve been very busy dealing with the health issues of my mother-in-law, and the strain was taking its toll on my usually sunny nature. In the midst of the madness, I received an unexpected pick-me-up. A box of old family photos my aunt found in her closet. My spirits raised immediately.

I had a wonderful hour going through the photos, most of which had notations on the back with the names of those in the picture and sometimes the date. The cover picture is my grandmother’s great-grandmother Mary, who was born in 1813. I lost count of the ‘greats’ there, so please bear with my chosen phrase. That picture was taken in 1899, when she was a venerable 86.  I’ll bet she ruled that family with a rod of iron. I know I’d jump if she ever asked for anything. Just pondering all the events she saw in her long life was fascinating. Not to mention the fact she was brave enough to sit for a picture at that age. They didn’t have the term “badass” in the 1899, but if they did, her picture would be next to the definition.

This next one I found is of my scandalous great grandmother, Athalea, who when my great grandfather ran off leaving her with a baby and no support, dropped her only daughter off with her sister to periodically raise whilst she traveled, married and buried two more husbands, and had a generally wonderful time. I remember her as always so well dressed, immaculate, and very proper, but I wish I knew her when she was young. I’d bet she would be such fun after a few martinis on Girl’s Night Out. I wear her engagement ring every day in her memory, and that of my grandmother. Check out that fabulous hat. Photo is circa 1890s.


Her elder sister Marie Antoinette (don’t you love the names?) was the responsible one. She raised my grandmother, was the family historian, and took wonderful care of everything she had. I vaguely remember her, but I have most of her beautiful furniture, and all of her books – a collection now worthy of notice. This picture was taken in the late 1880s. Just look at that wonderful neckline of her dress.


Now to the shocking surprise. There was a middle sister named Alberta that my mother and her sisters didn’t know about. According to the back of the picture, she died in 1922, before my mother and her sisters were born, so I guess there is some justification for our ignorance. In my research, I discovered the knot of ribbon on her chest was something from the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), a group she and her sisters belonged to for many years. The inscription makes me think this picture celebrated her initiation. While that’s a gorgeous dress, I’ll bet that corset she wore was very uncomfortable. I’ll have to remember that when I complain I have to wear stockings.


When I called Mom with the news, she said that I must be ‘mistaken’. That’s polite Mom-speak for “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” She maintained there were only 2 sisters and one brother. I took great pleasure in letting her know that this woman is indeed a relative because I’m a dead ringer for her. Judge for yourself, and see why I was a bit freaked out.

I took the box down to Carmel to show Mom, to prove I’m not delusional. She eventually agreed, when she saw the resemblance, that this has to be another aunt, and we started going through the old pictures she has. We were happy to find someone in a group picture that we now think is Aunt Alberta, later in life. Mom said since I’m the one who found this, it’s now my responsibility to find out who she is.

She just effectively gave me the new role of family historian, taking up where Aunt Nettie left off.

I’m good with that. While I don’t know if my son or the children of other family members will ever care, it’s something that needs to be done. I’ve started digging through online records for that time, and while I’ve just scratched the surface, it’s a start. I’ve decided to expand it a bit, and while I can’t find anything yet on my father’s side, I’m hoping something will turn up eventually. Record keeping in Ireland in the 1800s was, well, a bit sporadic, to say the least, but I’m not giving up now.

The best part about it? I’m doing this for just for me. I’m just glad my parents didn’t name me Alberta.