This is day 15 of the Family History Writing Challenge — the one where I do a little backtracking, a lot of mea culping, and some not-so-gentle admonishing.
The Family Picture
Once upon a time, a mysterious picture hung in my mother’s apartment in Atlanta. The people pictured in it, those featured at the top of my blog, were identified by my mother on a piece of paper that she glued to the back of the picture, but all I knew about them were their names.
I don’t remember when my mother wrote those names down. She died in 1991, so I’d say at least 40 years ago.
My mother brought the picture over from Vienna with her, clearly treasured among the meager possessions she was able to take. Other family members naturally had copies too, I later learned. My cousin Gigi (granddaughter of Rudolf Kornmehl) wrote when I first sent her the family photo: “I, too, have the photo of my grandparents seated with the brothers and sister in two rows after a family function.”
Framing the Issue
At some point, my sister and I chipped in to frame the picture for my mother, a gorgeous, ornate wooden frame with brass studs. I have it in my house now, and tried to photograph it today but couldn’t capture anything very accurately but the brass name plate.
My mother loved the gift. She hung the picture in a place of prominence in her small apartment after carefully writing down the names of all the family members and glueing them on the picture’s back. I haven’t looked at the names she wrote in a long time, but I wanted to check something today.
A few things struck me.
- The umlaut over the “a” in “Farber.” My mother put it over the name of both Resi and Leopold, so it was no error. According to a site I checked:
ä (long) ai say (“ay” in “say” with spread lips) nächste (naiH-ste) (next) ä (short) ê bet (clipped “e”) fällen (fêl-en) (to fell [a
I’m stymied as to how this could possibly relate to the pronunciation of “Farber.”
- The fact that she spelled the first name of my great aunt Kornmehl-Singer-Schweizer as “Berta.” Let’s add that to the mix of possible variations on the name that is also written as “Biela,” “Bella,” and “Bertha.”
- An almost physical pain at seeing my mother’s handwriting. Of course I think about her a lot while I am researching her family, but I can’t really relate to the pictures of her in her youth; I never knew her in that incarnation. In contrast, I saw her handwriting all the time. It was a sore point with her. My father had beautiful, flowing penmanship; so did most of the relatives whose writing I’ve seen on the documents I’ve been examining. My mother, not so much. Her cursive was like chicken scratch. She was embarrassed by it but it was distinctively hers. What would I give to see her use it again.
Which leads me to the main thing I realized today: The picture was only mysterious because I didn’t sit down with my mother and ask her to tell me her family stories, to identify each of these relatives and disclose everything she remembered about them. I still don’t know when and for what occasion the picture was taken. It’s easy to spend money on the gift of a picture frame, far harder to give the gift of time.
Don’t wait. If you’ve got a parent or grandparent able to tell you their stories, grab a tape recorder and ply them with questions. You’ll be glad you did.
Elaine Schmerling says
Great advice. We have so many “if only’s” – if only we had asked more. And history repeats – my children arn’t interested – yet. They may be later.
Edie Jarolim says
Yes, good for you for carrying the torch of family research. I wasn’t interested when I was your kids’ age but they may be interested later. You’ve provided them with the information.