In praise of family albums Print
Grand Mom
Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010 -- 1:00 AM

Grand Mom by Audrey Mettel Fixmer

I have recently received a most precious gift in the mail. It was sent by my niece, Lisa, who had just buried her father, Pete, my brother-in-law.

The moment I opened the outer box and saw the soiled, yellow-white box inside, I knew what it was: my mother's photo album. Pictures from the first half of the 20th century!

Some more than 100 years old, but still as clear as they were when I was a little girl. The black pages inside are crumbling now, leaving a messy residue, but the photos are amazingly clear.

It was obvious why my niece sent them to me. I am the last one living in my generation, the only one who can put names with these faces . . . and tell their stories. What an awesome responsibility!

Important events

In addition to the photo album, the box contained a pile of professional photographs, each in its own folder, stamped with the name of the photographers long since gone.

These were primarily baby pictures (I remember arguing with my mother, "How could this one be my brother, Roy? He's wearing a dress!"), wedding couples (all those great-aunts and uncles my kids would not know!), and First Communion, the importance of which is suggested by the very fact that it warranted a trip to the photographer's studio. All are holding what appears to be the same candle and prayer book. Only the knickers and length of the skirts suggest the decade.

The most unusual of the professional photographs is that of my Grandpa Patterman's coffin, completely blanketed with flowers, in the middle of which is displayed a large photograph of him. One of the floral arrangements spelled out "Our Father" and I used to add, "who art in heaven."

Stories of perseverance

I can still hear my mother's voice as she told me, "I was only four when my father died, and your Aunt Helen was two. But I still remember my mother sleeping every night between us and crying herself to sleep. In the morning she would dress us up and take us to the cemetery, where she cried some more."

I learned that he was only 27 when he died after fighting the big Woolworth fire in Aurora in sub-zero weather. He died of pneumonia a short time later.

How did my mother turn out to be such a happy, dimpled sweetheart after such a start in life?

One thing that turned her life around was that Grandma had to go to work supporting her two little daughters. So she went to work hanging wallpaper and homemaking for others like her brother, Chris Brummel, who lost his first wife in childbirth with their second baby.

And there's the picture in the album of Grandma holding baby Louise, great-uncle Chris holding two-year-old Ralph, with Mother and Aunt Helen in the background.

Preserving memories

That had to be about 1910. One hundred years ago! Their personal cameras and film were developed to the extent that they produced pictures of that quality? Colored pictures that we produced in the '60s and '70s are a faded mess. What happened?

Our children are excited to see these pictures, but they will be meaningless without identification and "stories."

Since the photos are glued on to the old black pages, I can't reproduce them individually. My son, Tim, however, has painstakingly copied each page to my computer, so now all I have to do is to label and date them.

Studying Mother's album has made me realize that my memory was vague regarding dates. Was my oldest sister born in 1918? 1915? No worry, I could look it up in my "Brummel Book."

My mother's mother was a Brummel, and about 15 years ago a young woman in the family tree got her first computer and was inspired to write more than 3,000 letters to relatives asking for details of their children's births, marriages, etc., who were descendents of the first Brummels to come to the U.S. from Germany.

She then produced a 500-page book of names, photos, and some stories about 3,500 relatives and their spouses. With that resource, I can easily estimate the dates of my photos.

Somebody has to put the names with the faces and reproduce all of those wonderful pictures for posterity. That box from Lisa tells me I'm IT!

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it