Reliving history, one old photograph at a time

It's so easy to forget the past. Not the major historical events that shaped the country and the world, but the smaller, yet still historical, things that shaped us individually.

As our relatives pass away, we lose another piece of history that connects us to our past. We know less and less about our grandfathers or great-grandfathers who fought in the world wars. We don't have anyone to tell us what it was like to live in a time when cars hadn't been invented, when people got around by horse and wagon.


But it's not just that, it's the every day things we don't know – that my grandmother made my dad's shirts, that my great-grandparents built their house in southwestern Pennsylvania on the weekends when they could, living in a gutted yellow school bus while they were working on it.

"So many times, grandchildren grow up never knowing the many interesting happenings regarding their families/ancestors. This is an attempt to fill that need," my late grandmother, B. Lucille Compton, wrote in the beginning of the book she gave me on my 21st birthday.


She bought the gray album, with a green and red almost checked-looking design on the front, in Kiev in the Soviet Union on Aug 16, 1982. I was 10 years told. Her intention was to create a photo album for her newest grandson, my cousin, Glenn, but she never followed through and was giving the book to me. It was supposed to be for my 20th birthday. But "again my plans went astray. This is my last attempt to complete it," she wrote.

Half of the 32-page book is filled with details, incredibly intricate details in some places and rather vague in others, of my dad's family, with pictures and captions that give me so much information about them and their lives.

The first picture is one of my grandfather, my dad and my uncle.

"The '3' great men in my life! This was taken 1959. [Uncle] Glenn was almost 9 and your Dad was almost 13. This was taken on the former side porch which is now my study."

Below that are pictures of my grandmother and grandfather as kids, maybe 2 years old, then pictures of both sets of my great-grandparents on my dad's side. I was fortunate enough to know all of them.

My grandmother included a portrait from 1889 of her grandparents on her mother's side, which makes them my great-great-grandparents, Werley and Barbara Ellen Rodahaver Hall. Grandma recalls her fond memories of her grandmother, and how she was there when she died. She had fallen, and Grandma helped care for her until her death, even after that when she was embalmed, which, as my grandmother wrote, was often done in the homes.

"I assisted with the embalming, combed her hair and helped place her in her coffin," she wrote. "How I loved her! Tears are in my eyes now thinking about her. She taught me how to milk cows, ride horses, slop the hogs, churn butter, gather eggs, kill and dress chickens, etc."

There are pictures of my grandfather playing professional soccer, of him in his Navy uniform (man was he handsome) and lots of pictures of my dad and his brother growing up. My parents wedding announcement is in there, as well as my mom's college graduation pictures. The pictures of my uncle's wedding include me and my brother – I was a junior bridesmaid and my brother was a ring bearer (yes, he dropped the rings walking down the aisle).


And there's one of me in the stationary tub in my grandparents' basement. We used to love to take our baths in there. Then we would have our bedtime snack – frozen strawberries. We'd set them out on the washing machine and my brother and I would alternate picking them. The first one always took the biggest one. One of the pictures is of me and Chris sitting in a chair in March 1978, eating our berries.

How I love this book! There is so much I don't know about my family, so much I can't even fathom how much it is. But these pages, these pictures, and especially the explanations, are beyond priceless. They're glimpses of my history, what my family was like years and years ago, the situations they faced, the times they lived in, from a first-hand point of view. Some of it I was part of, but most of it I was not. Reading my grandmother's words, however, I can almost feel like I was there, or at least imagine what it was like.

When my grandmother gave this to me, in February 1993, this is how she ended her portion of the book:

"My dear Erika, This has been a labor of love – we both care for you deeply.

"I only wish that one of my grandparents had given me such a record – so many times we want information when it's too late. For example, my 91-year-old can no longer give me accurate answers to questions I still have.

"Enjoy it, share it and protect it. It has taken many evenings of work to complete it...


"Again G'pa and I love you very much.

"G'ma Compton."

The best part of it is the back half is empty, clean blank pages. They're for me to fill up. I've already set aside some pictures I want included – me and my parents at my friend's wedding, the invitation to my dad's 60th birthday party, my brother's wedding and our family picture, including the dog, from 1993.

This will be passed along to my grandchildren, so they know about their history and their ancestors. Hopefully, this can be handed down for many generations to come.