Several years ago, my brother and I acquired a box of old stuff from our last remaining paternal aunt. She knew the contents would be treasured by us. Glenn is a genetic genealogist and I’m passionate about generational storytelling – a cosmic duo!
As we sorted through that box, one picture intrigued me. But alas, the family was unidentified, which so often is the case. Oh, how I hate it when that happens. Random photographs – awesome glimpses of the past and all with stories to tell – yet they fill baskets at antique stores. For sale, because no one knows who these families are.
My heart hurts – such a travesty! Stories untold. Lessons unlearned. Memories unshared. Sigh!
Glenn and I were on a mission to solve this personal mystery. Who were these people?
Judging by the photograph and the fashion, we assumed it was taken in the late 1800s. A sepia image on cardboard, with the studio name embossed at the bottom – typical of that era. Conservative dress. Stoic faces.
The studio’s name and its location could provide clues. My brother discovered the years this studio – REESE Crayon and Ink Portraits – was in business in Mankato, Kansas. We knew it was a family on our paternal side.
We studied the children, hoping to get clues from their gender and birth order. The oldest was a girl – possibly 8-10 years old. Next, a boy, maybe 6-7? They both stood with their mother. The family patriarch was seated next to a youngster – maybe 12-18 months old – sitting high on a cushion. Was the youngest a boy or girl – we didn’t know. Toddlers were dressed similarly at that time. At the other end of the ornate wooden bench was a sweet little girl – possibly 3 years old. Both sisters had their hair parted in the middle just like their mama’s, though hers was likely in a bun rather than adorned with bows like her daughters.
A typical muted background was the background for this family, and a long-fibered rug, decorated the floor beneath their feet. Don’t you just love the character found in these old pictures? I love to see lace collars, high-topped boots, leggings, and such.
I intently gazed at the picture as my brother searched his computer for ancestors who lived in the Mankato area at that time.
Those eyes. I knew those eyes.
The father of the family had piercing eyes and a healthy mustache. I’d seen those eyes before. And, that mustache. I knew that guy and I kept repeating that to my brother. I knew him – I just didn’t know who he was.
Meanwhile, Glenn’s online search was unsuccessful. There was no family with four kids in the area at that time.
But those eyes! That mustache!
Now, I am aware of today’s facial recognition technology but let me tell you this. I believe we develop our own internal facial recognition abilities when we work as long as I have on preserving our family history.
The only photograph I’d ever seen of this gentleman (and of his wife, too) was taken decades later. The elderly Kansas couple was evidently visiting their adult children in Turlock, California when these portraits were taken.
Our great-grandma was demure and lovely with her long white hair pulled back. Great Grandpa Ratcliff’s hair was also white and his signature mustache was joined by a beard. His eyes were still piercing and the furrowed brow remained. This was the Albert Ratcliff I’d come to know. These were the eyes, furrowed brow, and mustache I recognized.
When I placed his decades-later photograph of our great-grandfather next to his family photo taken decades earlier, there was no doubt. Case closed. The mystery was solved.
This was the earliest picture of our paternal grandmother (Bertha) Glenn and I had ever seen. The reason we first dismissed them as being the unidentified family is that theirs was a family of eight children. Not four. The mystery picture was with the eldest four. Four more children completed this family. All but one (Marion) lived long, healthy, and happy lives! Marion died at 11 years old on their school playground due to an accident.
Seventy (+/-) years later the Ratcliff siblings posed for another family picture. This time, the names were recorded.
These are my people! A family whose history I cherish and one whose stories I continue to tell, one at a time.