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Every genealogist knows that pictures of our ancestors are like treasure. No amount of money could ever make us hand over the very souls of our ancestors. Pictures help our stories of our ancestors come to life. Pictures make us feel as though we actually knew our ancestors. Through pictures we can see through the descendants what physical features stand out down a line. Pictures also tell us about the times our ancestors lived in through their clothing or the background of the picture. Having pictures of our ancestors is one of the best parts of putting together a family history.

My maternal grandparents fought constantly. I do not have one memory of my maternal grandparents together that didn't involve my nana screaming at my grandfather for one thing or another, but I only visited my grandparents twice a year. When my nana passed away in 1986, my grandfather was devastated. He once told my cousin many years later that he wished he could die tomorrow so he could be with her again. This brought tears to my eyes. Here was this man who hadn't gotten along with his wife for decades missing the love of his life. He lived 18 years without her, dying in February of 2004. Although I was sad that he passed, I knew that he was in a much better place and was finally happy again. Years of being in a wheelchair, several surgeries, and almost a decade of poor health later and I knew that his death was peaceful and what he wanted. I picture them together wherever they are, happy to be in each others arms.

When he died, I asked my mother to bring me all the pictures she could find. I had never seen a baby picture of my mother or a picture of her as a child. I had never seen pictures of my uncles or aunt either as children. I never will. One night when my grandfather was drunk and missing my Nana, he burned all the family photos. Photos of when my nana was a baby, photos of him as a child, photos of all his children growing up. All of the family photos gone because he missed his wife so much and couldn't bare to have them around him anymore. No idea why this man did not call one of his four children to have one of them take the photos out of the house so that the memories could be preserved somewhere, but in a drunken fit of pain I can understand to a point. My heart though will forever be broken over this act.

When my mom first told me, I was dumbfounded. This man served as a cook on a Naval ship during World War II and the Korean War. This man worked for the same company for 30+ years and retired with stock and a pension. This man loved to garden, grow his own fruit and vegetables, and had provided the most beautiful home to his family. This man worked hard his entire life and made the most delicious meals. He was, from what I experienced and the stories I had always heard about him, one of the most unselfish individuals on this Earth. To burn those pictures in such a selfish act is something that will haunt his descendants forever. I wonder sometimes if when he was sober he realized what he had done or if he just missed her so much having the photos gone were a relief to him. I can only imagine that he went back and forth with this. Maybe even sometimes being in more pain because he had no pictures of her anymore to look at.

A few months after he died, my aunt found a picture of my nana holding my aunt as a baby. My aunt was the first born child. The picture shows my aunt, my nana, my great grandmother, and my great great grandmother. A true genealogical treasure. Four generations in the same picture. The picture was taken in the early 1940s when my nana was still young. The memory I have of my nana was that she was mean and cold. Always yelling at everyone around her. As I got older I always wondered if she had always been like this or if life had done something to her to make her this way. In this picture, she is so young, so innocent, and the smile she has on her face is something I never saw. I was only in 3rd grade when she died and like I mentioned before, only visited her like twice a year, but still I had never seen her smile. My mom has pictures of my nana holding me when I was a baby and she is still not smiling. But in this picture taken in the early 1940s, there's my nana, beaming with happiness. Her eyes are filled with love and hope and dreams still. This picture is my favorite of her. She's young, she's in love, and her adult life is just starting out. The only other pictures I have of her are pictures my parents took when I was a baby with her. She is much older, has a cold stare, and looks as though she wants nothing to do with anyone around her.

I wish my grandfather had thought about his descendants. I was always his favorite grandchild for some reason. When my parents and aunt cleaned out his house they were surprised to find pictures tucked away in drawers all over the house of me. Pictures of me as a baby, as a child, as a teenager, pictures of me at my wedding, and even pictures of my children. My son was only 2 when he died and my daughter not even 2 months old. I'm sorry to say they never met him. When his health started failing he didn't want anyone to come and see him, especially me. He wanted me to remember him as a healthy grandfather, who cooked me the most delicious meals and spoiled me with freshly squeezed orange juice everytime I visited. As much as I wanted to see him, I obeyed his request, because he had always been so good to me. I knew he was full of pride and I wanted him to keep his dignity and not feel like less of a man. I wish he would have remembered how much he loved me and thought that maybe one day I would want the pictures he was burning of my family. I wish he would have thought of his own children in that moment.

I wanted to share this story with other genealogists, because I know that this group of individuals probably has similiar stories. A fire took out family photos, someone refuses to share their family photos, etc. My family can feel some of the pain of not having those pictures, but only other genealogists truly understand the reprecussions of my grandfather's act. Those pictures are not just lost to his descendants who are alive now, but to his descendants that have yet to be born. Only fellow genealogists can understand this heartbreak, because every one of us has a genealogy heartbreak to tell.

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Tags: genealogy, pictures

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Comment by Tina Micheal Ruse on July 20, 2009 at 6:36pm
Jennifer,my heart breaks for you and your decedents reading this.My mother destroyed the only formal picture of my father that existed,in his WW2 uniform and his discharge papers that showed what medals he received and where he served, as well as other family pictures and mementos.I know in my head she was not a well woman but my heart still finds it hard to forgive even after her death.
I often look at the family pictures I do have and wonder what forces made my them the people they became.And I know that those same forces help shape who we are.This is one of the lessons that genealogy has taught me.And it has helped to make me more understanding.
Comment by Coralynn Brown on July 15, 2009 at 3:06pm
My family's heartbreak didn't involve pictures, but years & years of genealogy reseach that my Gr/gr/Aunt Hattie Hubbard Sargent had compiled. She was the Hubbard expert of northern N.Y. After her passing one of her grand-daughters (they say) burned boxes of data. Whether she knew what each box contained I have no idea, but if she did, it was an act of insensitivity to the n'th degree. She died in the 1950s, which means she did her research the hard way.......going to courthouses, cemeteries, etc. etc.

When I got my first computer back in 1999 I almost immediately began a Hubbard website on myfamily.com which is still flourishing. My reason: to reconstruct the reams of material my gr/gr/Aunt Hattie had found. I think I've done that, too. I dedicated the website to her and I'm sure she's pleased.

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