They are portals into the surreal and vaguely familiar, and I suppose that is why I've long been fascinated by photographs of relatives older than me, taken before I was born.
Case in point: Since my earliest memories, my Granny Wilson seemed like ... well ... a granny. I never saw her without at least a hint of gray in her hair or a crease on her cheek. But she was a child once. I know because I've seen the portaits of her from the 1920s.
Below is one of the sweetest of those images, my grandmother posing with her brother, Allie Wilburn Williams, who she thoroughly adored. I swear, if someone dumped me in a daycare playground, and I saw this little girl playing on a swing, I'd scoop her up, give her smooches and call her "Granny." She is that recognizable to me.
Above, Leona Williams Wilson with her "bruther" Bill Williams. From left to right, Leona through the years — in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s.
Here are more of my favorite portraits from my family tree.
4. Linda, on her way to school
This photo of my mom, Linda Wilson Kidd, hangs in my house, and I love so many things about it. Her knee-high socks and spindly legs. The out buildings and the gravel road in my grandparents' front yard, which look just as I remember them from my own childhood.
What I like most about this image, though, is the school folder Mom is clutching. Mom loves learning and passed that love onto her children and her grandchildren. This photograph is just so emblematic.
3. Aunt Verna, ready for her close-up
This is my Great Aunt Verna, my grandmother's sister. I came across this shot in a box of old photos in my Aunt Ina's house and was transfixed. I'm not exactly sure why. The sweet hint of a smile? Those placid eyes? The little mole on her neck? She looks so ... all-American. Such a beautiful little girl.
2. A Pine Bluff starlet?
Meet Noi Harriet "Hattie" Wilson Ballard. I've seen two photos of my second cousin twice removed — one in which she is wearing a stoll and posing in front of a luxury automobile, and this one. In each, she looks glamorous — downright flapper-like, in fact.
Hattie was from Morehead, Ky. She met her husband Emmett Ballard while visiting her aunts, Stella and Flora, in Pine Bluff, Ark. They had moved from Kentucky and were the sisters of Hattie's father, Dr. Burwell Clefford Wilson. Hattie and her husband, Emmett Ballard, lived in Pine Bluff, Ark., according to the 1930 census, She died in 1931, before her 26th birthday, though I've not been able to learn a cause of death — and believe me, I've looked high and low. Also unclear is how Emmett wound up in Kentucky at this death 60 years later He lived in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1935, and the 1940 census indicates Emmett lived in 1940 with his mother and brother in Lufkin, Texas, where he was employed as a salesman.
1. Prim and proper
So many interesting details. The baby-hair curls. The apple clutched in her right hand. The ornate hat. The braided necklace with pendant.
This is Nancy Abigail Quesenberry Hall, one of my maternal great-great grandmothers. I'm of the impression that the Halls were successful but rugged, rural people, which makes Nancy's garb in this tintype image surprising and intriguing.
Tintypes reached peak popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. Nancy was born in 1867, so this image likely was taken later than that, judging from her apparent age. Tintype images were popular at open-air markets and fairs, and often were shot by photographers operating from portable stuidos. As such, it's possible Nancy's clothing was not her own.
I can't help but note that she doesn't look like she's enjoying the photo as much as I do.