Over the last year I have inherited a large number of boxes as my family moved my dad, fast becoming frail, from his assisted living apartment into a nursing home.
In these boxes my father has been preserving generations of family history, waiting for the day, he said, when his kids were “old enough” to appreciate them. I guess we’re “old enough” now (we’re all over 50!) because I have been allowed to volunteer for the onerous task of unpacking, sorting, digitizing and distributing the contents of over a dozen banker box repositories of family lore and artifacts.
Dad is settled in now, my siblings who live nearby have figured out a way to help him Facetime with the rest of us on a pretty regular basis, and now I have to pursue my family archives project in earnest. I had to get a new scanner–my old one is from the early ’90’s and has some distinct drawbacks with user-friendliness. I also had to get “archival” supplies to assist in removing the pics from the photo albums (some of them were very damaged and I wanted to try to prevent more of that) and set myself up in a little work station. No more excuses…I even figured out my “method” for cataloging the stuff.
I have been slowly going through the boxes and taking out the oldest albums first, as those are the most at risk. In the process of doing that, I’ve found some gems: letters from my grandfather to his younger brother and sister when he was away in the Phillipines in the Spanish American War, roll-top pencil boxes made by my great uncle for his children, nieces and nephews, wedding invitations and christening bonnets from several generations ago, letters in German from my great great grandmother to her grandson–my grandfather, after he graduated from dental school, couldn’t bear the thought of entering practice with his dour uncle, and upon graduating fled the country to join the Army of the Phillipines. These I have to set aside while I focus on the photo albums first. To date I have about seven albums “done”, several of which have nearly 300 individual pictures in them. It’s quite a volume of stuff, and has given me images of relatives in previous generations I’ve heard of my whole life, but never seen before. What a treasure trove!
Yesterday I found a small leather album which, although it had no identifying words on it, I figured out was from my grandfather’s years in Trinidad.
He returned stateside from the Spanish-American War and could not get a job–at the turn of that century, no one wanted to hire veterans! Desperate, he signed onto employment with an oil company in Venezuela, and when he was done there, was sent to Trinidad to work as a civil engineer in the oil fields there because he knew Spanish. He had a camera and loved photography. He was developing his photos under primitive circumstances, given the condition of some of them. Many were not in very good shape, but I did my best to digitize the best possible copy.
Most of them are pictures of the natural environment around the oil fields, some of the workers, buildings, and native villages. It’s not the artistry of them that is stunning to me, for they are just snapshots of a young man’s working environment, it’s the fact that at this point, they are almost 120 years old. My grandfather was born in 1873, but he did not marry until almost the age of 50, and my father was born when he was 53. So my grandfather was the age of my other great-grandfathers. When I think about the dates these pictures of a working man’s life were taken, it seems so long ago. But when I think of all the stories my father told us about his father’s life–for instance, in Trinidad the birds would get stuck in the tar pits, and the oil company men would pay locals to walk a board out, cut the bird out of the tar, clean it up and let it go– suddenly 120 years becomes so…touchable.
Top left: trainyards Top right: my grandfather’s friend Tom
2nd row left: oil well 2nd row right: my grandfather on a steam shovel
3rd row left: the town 3rd row right: a typical house
Bottom: house on stilts in case of hurricane flooding