30-Day Family History Writing Challenge: Day 6

By Allison Dolan

We’re six days into the NaNoWriMo-inspired 30-Day Family History Writing Challenge. Today’s post is from guest editor, Vanessa Wieland, who writes in response to this prompt:

Select your favorite family photo, and write about the moments just before and/or after the photo was taken. Why was it taken? Was your ancestor happy to be in it?

This is a portrait of my great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Samuels. The occasion of this photo is presumably a happy one. According to the note on the back, it was taken on her 80th birthday. She seems to be listening here, perhaps to the photographer directing her to tilt her head just so and look over his shoulder. Perhaps she’s reflecting on her birthday plans. Was there a party? Perhaps the thought of cake is inspiring that smile.

My grandfather instilled in me an appreciation for my Welsh heritage, but seeing this photo was the first time I felt such a strong connection to an ancestor I’ve never met. As it turns out, I was born on my great-great grandmother’s birthday.

My grandfather mentioned loving her accent as a child, but he didn’t talk about her that much; his family stories tended to revolve far more around his Uncle Dan. Yet it’s her voice that echoes through them both in the strong sense of family she instilled in them – and through them, to my mother, my sister, and myself.

When we first found this photo, it was as we were cleaning out the house of another of her descendants. The occasion was not a happy one; my mother’s cousin had passed and my grandfather was the closest living relative, so it fell to him – and us – to sift through a near-stranger’s belongings and tie up any loose ends.

Yet within those belongings, we found two items of note that my mother claimed; a cameo brooch and this photo. My mother found the brooch first and recalled seeing it as a child, but could not remember where. It wasn’t until a few days later that we came across this photo, and saw the same brooch pinned to Elizabeth’s blouse. The brooch was surprise enough, but even now, I’m struck by how much my mother looks like her.

I love this photo not just because I was born on her birthday, and a few decades after this photo was taken, but because the smile on her face seems to reflect a genuine contentment along with a sense of anticipation. I imagine her thinking, “I’m really looking forward to celebrating with my family, and a nice piece of cake.”