What you’re truly seeing in an old photograph

January 8, 2018

The following post is inspired by Amy Johnson Crow‘s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, a 2018 program of writing prompts related to genealogy and investigating family history. 

Place an aged sepia-toned photograph on the tabletop, and it’s a nice momento from the past, the beaming youthful face of a grandmother you knew.

Fit context around that photograph, and suddenly you have something all together different, something that’s more curious, speaking out to you about what you’re truly seeing.

Below is my favorite image of Mary Catherine Pidgeon, the woman I knew from the time I was an infant until her death in 2012 as my grandmother.

Old Family Photos, Cincinnati, Ohio Life Insurance, Memoir
Mary Catherine Pidgeon in the late 1940s.

You see her victory rolls curling behind her ears and just barely grazing her soft shoulders. You see the sweater sleeves pulled up above a shiny watch and her strong wrists, and the way she looks at the unnamed photographer with her deep set, joyful eyes and wide smile shows a confident, strong woman.

I see more than what the camera captured.

Here’s a young, professional woman, who at the age of 17 suddenly lost the father she admired to a sudden onset of leukemia, and a year later, replaced the void in her heart with a an untamable young man from a railroad family. She’d marry that young man less than a year after meeting him, and just six months after their wedding, he shipped out to Parris Island for the Marine Corps.

She waited in Cincinnati. Twice, though, she crossed the country by train to visit when he had leave in California. And they proved to be, well, two impassioned people:

World War II, Domestic Dispute, Marines, Marine Corps


Something truly special happened during the last trip in March 1945. She wrote him a letter about it, a letter he received while sailing on a troop transport to Tinian Island, where American B-29s took off to decimate mainland Japan. She was pregnant, she wrote to him. They were going to be a family.

He wrote a letter to her as the B-29s rumbled above him, expressing his euphoria over the news, and urged her to take care of herself, and when the time would come and he would come home, they’d give their child the best of everything.

She tried her best to take care of herself. But sometimes:

Family History, Genealogy Family History, Genealogy


Tragedy struck in late October 1945, just after her 22nd birthday:

Family History, World War II, Stillborn,
This appeared in the Nov. 3, 1945 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Mary Catherine’s mother took the stillborn boy, placed his tiny body into a small box, wrapped it in blue paper, and had him buried next Mary Catherine’s father in Calvary Cemetery.

Mary Catherine would recover, her husband would come home from the war, and they would have a daughter in 1948. She took a job as an accountant, just like her father, and she moved into Cincinnati’s Price Hill neighborhood, brimming with German-American and Irish-American Catholics before the mass exodus into the suburbs a decade later.

Tragedy, love, loss, forgiveness lay ahead for Mary Catherine. She would take part in events that would prove to be shocking, revolting, and yet, also inspiring. Lives changed forever, some for better, others for worse, and Mary Catherine made no small contribution to it.

That’s another post for another time.

She was the grandmother I admired, one who loved unconditionally her grandchildren. She was my biggest cheerleader, certain I would turn out to be the writer I aspired to be. But hours after the mausoleum caretakers placed her ashes into a sealed marble chamber in St. Joseph Cemetery in Cincinnati, that’s when I learned something completely unexpected.

Mary Catherine wasn’t my actual grandmother.

That photo above seems different with some context now. To see her from her younger days looking back at me, I feel nostalgia and chills, memories and mystery.

Dave is a professional writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. His writing podcast, Creatively Genuine, is available on iTunes and Google Play.

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    1. Great post Dave, and I’m grateful to the 52 Ancestors challenge for leading me to your blog. I have a lot of photos of my grandparents and great grandparents on my mum’s side and have never really looked at them as closely as you have this photo to notice how they’re wearing their clothes and the pose they’re holding. You’re right that this gives us insight into them as an individual and now I need to look back through these photos with a different perspective and get to know these ancestors better.

    1. Like Derek, I’m thankful for 52 Ancestors for leading me to your blog! You had me tearful again! And, wanting to read more.
      Thanks, too, for how closely you looked at this photo. And sharing the stories you told. I want to become a better writer and learn to tell stories as you do!
      (P.S. You have one typo I noticed – a place where you wrote “a an” – just pointing it out so you can correct this beautiful piece of writing!)

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