Boomerang photos

I grew up with few pictures from my mother’s side of the family. Her parents, Emory Morse and Lois Rhodes, had been near-neighbors as children in Wareham, Massachusetts. They divorced when my mother was eight. Mother had no further contact with her father until she was 40.

After my mother’s college graduation, her mother and step-father, a teacher working for the U.S. State Department, announced they had accepted a three-year-assignment in Ethiopia. Mother declined the opportunity to go with them. Instead, she accepted her first job as a clinical instructor and moved into a small apartment. Her family home in Maywood, New Jersey, was rented, with all contents of the house placed in a storage warehouse. Three months later, the warehouse burned – a total loss.

All my mother had from her childhood were a few framed photos and a couple of snapshots in her purse. Consequently, I had scant evidence of what my grandmother looked like as a young woman and no idea of what my grandfather looked like. A desire to find pictures fueled many of my early research endeavors.

Typical for the era, my grandmother (Nana) wrote letters, every few weeks, to her brothers who remained in Wareham. Fortunately, Mother’s cousins were savers, with boxes of correspondence from their parents, and they shared their bounty with me. Nana’s letters always included captioned snapshots and sometimes wallet-sized pictures of my mother and her two sisters. That helped fill the void, but it was not enough. I wondered if someone kept studio pictures of significant events like Nana’s graduation from nursing school.

Fortunately, Mother’s cousins were savers, with boxes of correspondence from their parents, and they shared their bounty with me.

As a 1929 graduate of the Truesdale Hospital School of Nursing in Fall River, Nana always carried that distinction proudly, enhanced by my mother earning her R.N. from the same place 25 years later. Both were saddened when Truesdale closed. While no nursing school yearbooks existed, I felt certain Nana had a portrait taken in her nursing cap.

An instructor from my mother’s student days suggested that I contact Alma Andrews Robinson, who was about the same age as Nana. Mrs. Robinson responded enthusiastically to my telephone query by telling me that she and another of my grandmother’s classmates, Emily Bellman, now shared a home. They invited me to visit. Alma gave me an inscribed graduation picture of Nana, still in its original studio folder: “With Love, To My Darling Pal, Rhodesie.” Emily also gave me a newspaper clipping with the photos of all that year’s graduating nurses, all of whom were living in 1982.

With his late entry into my life, my maternal grandfather never quite took to be being called “Grandpa” and asked that I call him by his first name, Emory. His youth had largely been erased. I hoped I could find a similar studio picture for him. He graduated from Wareham High School in 1925. Again, no yearbooks, but possibly a formal picture. Emory supplied the names of several school chums, but my queries revealed they did not graduate with him.

Meanwhile, I pursued another strategy: A cousin had given me a copy of Wareham’s 1974 street directory, which not only listed occupants’ name but their date of birth! I made a list of all the individuals born in 1906 or 1907, then narrowed it to three or four names on people likely to have been one of my grandfather’s high school classmates. The second person I called, Madeline Proctor Pierce, remembered Emory fondly. She thought “somewhere” in her home she had his picture but needed time to search. I gave her my address in Vermont. Several weeks a large envelope arrived with Emory’s picture, also in its original studio folder—this one inscribed, “Your friend, Morsie.” What a thrilling revelation to see the youthful Emory for the first time.

When I showed the picture to Emory he quipped, “I went to high school with him!”

Little did either of my grandparents realize that the photos they gave to friends would make their way back to me more than fifty years later. Even better than a boomerang returning to its owner!

Now having a sense of what Lois and Emory looked like, their faces jumped out to me from uncaptioned snapshots pasted in scrapbooks, like the one below from about 1922:

Lois, at left, Emory, at right, with Lois’s siblings — Pinkie, Harry, and Jack — between them. Tom Mitchell, the brother of Lois’s step-grandmother, Mary (Mitchell) McLaughlin, is the older man.

This picture now lives as poignant memento of my grandparents’ shared childhood. One of genealogy’s most rewarding consequences is our assembling of disconnected past shards into a recognizable mosaic.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

17 thoughts on “Boomerang photos

    1. It becomes a quest, and there’s always a possibility that someone may still have something tucked away.

    1. These discoveries were made over 35 years ago, and so many people in my family have enjoyed them ever since.

  1. Thanks for giving me ideas as to where one might find high school information. My father-in-law graduated from BMC Durfee High School in Fall River, MA, in 1912 (I believe). Calls to the school tell me that the yearbooks didn’t start being published until a year later!

    1. Having grown up in Fall River, I knew many Durfee alumni, several who were in the Class of 1917. Try contacting the Fall River HIstorical Society. Good luck.

    2. I have my grandmother’s (Nellie Marie Stacy Gebhard) 1910 Rockwell City, Iowa high school yearbook, their first one; they included class photos from the first year to 1909. Since the 1910 class photo wasn’t ready for publication they included baby photos of that class.I will contact the Calhoun Co., Iowa library and historical society to see if they want scans of the photos. This might be a good resource for others; thanks for the idea!

  2. A wonderful story and very clever thinking on your part. I have quite a few studio portraits of my family/ancestors–and of my brother and myself as children and for graduations, weddings. The quality is great. I wish people still followed this custom. Your photos are lovely.

    1. Thank you for your comments on the pictures. True sepia tones. They survived so well because they were kept away from light. Color pictures from my childhood have not fared as well.

  3. While researching my father’s family, I discovered a 3rd cousin, twice removed. She had a big box of old family photographs, many of which were not marked as to who they were. Fortunately, she scanned them all for me and between us we were able to identify almost all of the individuals by comparing photographs in my collection. One of the many finds was an 1888 photo of my Grandmother and her mother which I had not seen before. It appears that this photo was sent to my GG Aunt who had moved from Kansas to Oregon in 1880. This aunt saved all of these wonderful photographs which were passed down to my 3rd cousin. I was able to include many of them in the book I published on this extended family in 2011. An old box of photos saved for 120 years – a treasure that did not end up in the trash!

    1. As you have experienced, it is worth all the effort to try to identify the “unknown.” It was always helpful when photo studios put their name and address on the picture. Correlating that information with directories can sometimes narrow it down to the year.

  4. Fabulous! I will employ some of your ideas and hope I am half as lucky… I have found photos in old newspapers (scanned images), but they tend to be of pretty poor quality. And I have gifted old photos in my possession to the subjects’ descendants and I encourage others to do the same.

  5. Emory was a very handsome man. Glad that you finally have a reminder of him, even though he wasn’t involved as much as you would liked in your life. I had a grandfather like that, who died at 54. Mostly what I have is my Mom’s recollection of him, plus a few photos.

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