I have a very old, cracked photograph of an ancestress of mine, done on glass, and which resides in a pretty rose-colored, oval velvet case, surrounded by gold filigree. It's very small, only one and a half inches tall. I keep it in a silver cigarette box on a chest of drawers in my bedroom at Darlington House, where it is safely nestled among other little treasures.
Even though I know that I am related to the sitter, a young woman in her twenties, I do not know who she is. Looking at her photograph, I suspect that it was taken in the 1870s or 1880s, which would mean that she is of the same generation as my great-grandparents. I know that I am related to her through my mother, MD, in whose effects I came across the photograph after she died over ten years ago. I recall a conversation I had with MD many years ago, when I was a boy, in which she told me who the sitter was. I believe she comes from my mother's mother's side of the family. But beyond that I know no more.
Who, exactly, is this young woman in the photograph, I wonder? Is she my great-grandmother, known as Giggy, whose Paris porcelain I now own? Or is she one of the maiden great-great aunts who lived in a house on my great-grandparents' compound, who became the subject of sometimes cruel family fun in later life due to her eccentric and absent-minded behavior? Is she the one who would spend days on end, lost in reading out-of-date newspapers?
The young lady's photograph appears to have been framed as a keepsake, a memento. Was it for a doting parent or a loving husband? Was it a token for a suitor who never returned to be given it, leaving the young lady in question wondering what might have been, if only?
I will never know the answer to these questions . . . for those who could answer them are no more.
I regret that there isn't a slip of paper, tucked into the little velvet case, with the name of my ancestress upon it, written in faded ink in an antique hand. I recall that there may have been one once, when I was a boy, but if so it is now long lost.
Dear Reader, I implore you to query older members of your family and have them identify the un-named faces in your old photographs, so that the identity of the sitters will not be lost to future generations.
What a fleeting life it is we lead, and how fragile and ephemeral are our memories . . .
The photograph of a photograph taken long ago is by Boy Fenwick