Family Photos Can Change You
How one novelist reconnected with the ancestors she never met
Lucky for me, my father was a packrat. Dad spoke little about his childhood in China during the Warlord Era, but he kept suitcases full of artifacts, most of which only surfaced after his death in 2007. Among these mementos, I discovered photographs that swept me back in time and introduced me to relatives who belonged to a lost world.
At a glance, these fading images seem like curiosities in a museum, so antiquated that they couldn’t possibly connect to life on Earth today. But to me, their faces have the haunting power of ghosts. They beckon me closer, hold me longer, and keep drawing me back. “We are your people,” they seem to say. “We are your kin, your tribe. We belong to you and you to us.”
When I study these faces, I feel the space-time continuum shrinking. Barriers of nationality disappear along with immigration quotas. Many of these photographs are stiff, posed, studio shots, yet they throb with human vitality. Arcane mysteries of foreign custom, dress, rank, and nomenclature recede into the background. What come to the fore instead are the eyes and mouths, expressions of tenderness and tenacity, ineffable tells of the unique spirits that, thanks to the magic of DNA, really do still live within me.
Rewriting the Story of my Parents’ Marriage
How old footage of my family helped me see my mother through a new lens
Connecting to vanished worlds
Like many cross-cultural families, mine is both connected and divided by race, migration, and nationality. I grew up in Connecticut. My mother, now 100, is white and from Wisconsin; her forebears were northern Europeans. I spent summers on her family’s farm and have strong personal memories of both her parents and her brother before they died. Because I knew these people, I don’t need pictures to do the heavy lifting of replacing those relationships.