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Who Are These People?

Shultz Family 1920
Shultz Family 1920

As I look at an old black and white photo taken about 1920, I see serious looking people who I know are my relatives, but they are all dead now. Only my dad who is almost 90 can identify them. He is mostly sure he got their names right, and I think to myself, does it matter?

Somehow I found myself the only one in the family willing to look through countless boxes of photos and old newspaper articles of someone’s wedding or death. I look at photos with stern faces that seem to reflect hardship beyond my comprehension. Their eyes are hard and it is hard to imagine them smiling or laughing. Did they have joy in their life or was it mostly survival?

Viola Cemetary, South Dakota
Bob Shultz at Viola Cemetary, South Dakota

I know where some of them are buried in a little country cemetery in rural South Dakota. I hope their souls have found rest and peace after burying children, surviving wars, depressions, dust bowls and untold hardships that today’s kids will never understand.

I return to the task of looking through the boxes and trying to figure out what to do with these relicts of the past. I write on the back of the photo the names: Grace, Viola, Milo, Ralph, Henry, Ellen, Mable, Minnie, Peter, Caroline and Lydia. Ralph was my grandfather and I never met him because he died before I was born.

Do I frame the picture of my ancestors? I think their unhappy expressions will depress me as I walk by it, so I decide to scan it and save it in a box for some other possible descendant who might find family history interesting. Yet, I am haunted by the realization that some day I too will be forgotten.

I also feel gratitude that I live in better times today. My life has its difficulties but not to the magnitude of 100 years ago. I actually have it quite easy compared to my relatives of nearly a century ago. I send out a wish that my future decedents will find the world in 100 years to be a place and time that they are grateful to live in as well.

I honor my family and appreciate all they did to survive, protect and prosper. I will not throw way this glimpse of their reality. I acknowledge them and will keep their memento so that future generations will have their legacy.

But I will thin out what isn’t important in the dozens of boxes of unorganized photos, magazines and newspaper articles. I will devote myself to tossing blurry and poor quality photos both past and present. I will keep the special, precious treasures in an organized and meaningful collection to be seen and enjoyed. Perhaps a yet unborn child in the family will look upon the family album and spot a shared facial feature or imagine the life behind the still scene.

I will leave my own photo collections in order so that my kids will never have to spend hours, days and weeks sorting and tossing. In a day where pictures are easy to take and rarely ordered, I will step up and clean up the chaos. Most of all, I will live my best life now in the present moment. My ancestors would want that. And I want that for my kids.

If you have experience with dealing with photo sorting and what to keep and toss, I would love for you to share your thoughts by leaving a comment. And enjoy a few more articles about stuff and organizing by visiting some of my previous posts.


  1. Susie Hayes

    This kind of project reminds us that our identity lasts only several generations. Our impact, however ripples forward – how we live our life, what we learn, what we teach, what we value – impacting generations in ways we cannot fully know in the present.

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