About thirty years ago I drove across the country. On my way back east I stopped in South Bend, Indiana to visit my grandmother, Goldene Greenberger.
While there she got out a photo album and we looked at it together. It was filled with many familiar images; I had often seen duplicates or related shots in my parent's scrapbooks while growing up. There were also quite a few unknown to me. For all of them she was giving a running commentary on who was in each photo and what the event was. There were weddings, picnics and birthdays, uncles in uniform and babies in strollers, world travels and family visits. The photographs spanned most of the century up to that point.
We encountered one photo that was taken on a merry-go-round in the early 1920s. She told me who everyone was in the photo, but was uncertain of two men; she knew the names for the two distant relatives, but could no longer recall which identity belonged to which man. We looked at the back of the photo and there was nothing written on it. I was quietly aghast. My tenuous and tangential relationship to these men was such that the only person anywhere who would know the answer to the question was the very person who was showing me the photo, and she no longer knew. This went against my desire for a neat and orderly world where systems run smoothly and information is in its proper place.
But this mild panic of frustration was quickly replaced by something else: a calm accepting. For I realized that this forgetting was as it should be. What if we were to carry forward every bit of data from three and four generations back? There'd be no room to live our own lives in the present. The generation of my grandparent's parents is one I never knew. They were presented to me as photos and stories by those who knew them. The generation before that gets sketchier, there being few photos. Stories become anecdotes, which, going further back, fade away or get retold and become legends. And a legend is a poor vessel for carrying forward the smaller human movements that allow us to truly feel we know someone.
We live in the information age but nothing can change the nature of how we connect with our family and our heritage and how much room we need to maneuver and engage our own lives in the present. I try to write the facts on the back of my photographs, but I also understand that a date and some names will not allow future generations to see what was going on outside the frame of the picture.
- David Greenberger
Photo circa 1974: Goldene Greenberger (1894-1990)