The Family Portrait Photos Don’t Reveal

July 31, 2016: Standing on the front lawn, family safe, pet safe, watching firefighters fight to save our home.

I was grateful our lives were saved but in fear that our history would be lost once again. All I could think was where were our family photos? I stored them strategically in large green totes in the basement. They were all the proof of life Mom and I had collected over the past 40-plus years.

My mother saved photos aggressively; the loss of her own mother when she was 13 had robbed us before. As a consequence, I’ve never seen a photo of my grandmother.

Grandma was homeless when she came to Detroit. Ollie Mae only shared that she was raised by an abusive grandmother and that one of her parents had killed the other. No photos, no siblings, aunts or uncles. No layered history to pass along–just a tragic story and her alone raising her children.

I often imagined we had a big family somewhere, enjoying weddings and holidays and the like, all the while asking: “Whatever happened to Ollie Mae?” And wondering if she had children. I hoped one day letters would arrive saying, “We are your family and have been searching for you. Please come to Mobile, Alabama, and meet us!”

We would hop on a bus and ride for miles. When we got off we’d be greeted by hundreds of relatives at Big Mama’s house and all of them would resemble us! But this never happened.

Sure, my mom kept us full of rich stories about their family of six siblings and how close they were. They were all they had and Grandma Ollie Mae made sure they understood that.

Upon Ollie Mae’s death, the children were sent to three separate foster homes. Mom recalled neighborhood folk carrying out everything they owned–even their photo album.
Every year for Christmas my mom purchased a family camera. No matter how broke we were, she made it a point to get the newest model Kodak. Everywhere we went we took photos that were tucked carefully into several albums, housed alongside the few she was able to save from an apartment fire in 1977.

I remember sneaking the photo albums out of safekeeping when Mom was at work and enjoying the history I knew. There was only one photo of me as an infant and I dropped water on it. The photo began to bubble up and I watched history just fade away. When Mom found out she cried for hours. It was the oldest piece of history she owned.

In 2012 I began an aggressive search for our family from the years 1903 through the 1920s and came up with a few names of people I suspect were our great-grandparents. Everything else required specific names and dates that I don’t have.

Giving my mom the names of her grandparents was so emotional and rewarding for her, almost as if I had made up for destroying that photo. She since has made her transition, but not before I purchased books for her to write down as many stories to share with her grandchildren. Mom was phenomenal at telling us stories that will forever stay in our hearts. My goal is to add to them.

I will go to Mobile one day soon and check their city books to see what else I find. I am dedicated to be the current keeper of the photos that were saved by firefighters who I feel were God-sent and the restoration company who made sure our history was returned to us.

I pray that our history is never lost again and that I can find more pieces to our Black Family History.

What’s your story?
#BlackHistoryMonth #Edpost #Voices4Ed

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