Just a Box of Photos

Finding a box of old photographs seems like a huge discovery - until you look at the photographs themselves and realise they're part of your life story.

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  “...never threw anything out!”

  “She kept everything, didn’t she?”

  I looked up from my schoolwork to see my parents coming through the front door, my dad staggering under the weight of a towering pile of boxes. They had been out all day cleaning out my granny’s house, as they had been every weekend, and our house was slowly filling up with photo albums, paintings, old programmes for Cardiff City football matches, books, CDs – you name it, it was probably sitting in the garage. Or the spare room. Or any room, actually, the house was full of my granny’s old possessions.

  I walked into the kitchen to see what they had brought home today. “Anything interesting?” I asked my mum as she bustled around trying to find a space for a couple more boxes.

  “Not much really, just the usual – another stack of programmes, God only knows why she held onto those, and a whole box of photos to sort through,” my mum replied, nodding in the direction of the photographs.

  I smiled and started towards them. After my granny died in the summer, my parents had the unenviable task of clearing out her house so they could put it up for sale. The amount of vacuuming, dusting, polishing and general clearing and cleaning that had to be done really was phenomenal: my granny had never enjoyed cleaning, and by the time she went into hospital she hadn’t been able to do much of anything for a few weeks, let alone clean the house.

  But one of the nicer things we had to do was look through photographs. My granny loved taking photos, and judging by the number of albums and boxes of photos we found, she never threw a single one away.

  “There are some nice ones in there, do you want to have a look?” my dad said.

  “Yeah, course I do,” I said. Looking through photos and trying to decide which ones to keep was something we all helped with, but I enjoyed it the most – seeing pictures of my dad as a child was always funny, and seeing my granny and grampy together when they were younger was poignant, but there was something lovely about seeing their lives in sepia snapshots.

  I took the photos into the living room, to my usual spot by the fire. There was something calming about laying out photographs across the floor and looking for familiar faces or places, and wondering who was standing behind the camera, or who that person was standing with their arm around my granny’s shoulders, or what had made my grampy smile so widely.

  I scanned the first few photographs but didn’t see anything to make it worth keeping, at least from my point of view, so I scooped them up and made a pile for my mum and dad to take a second look at. I brought out another pile and flicked through them but put all of them in the “second-look” pile. I did the same thing another couple of times, only finding a couple of pictures of my dad when he was a toddler and one of my granny and grampy on my parents’ wedding day.

  My mum came in with a cup of tea and a mug of hot chocolate for me. “Anything good?” she asked, taking a slurp of her tea.

  “Not much,” I said, not looking up from the photos. “I’ve made a pile for you and dad to go through.”

  My mum sighed. “It’s never-ending, isn’t it?”

  There was something different in her voice, and I looked up at her. The lines around her eyes were more pronounced, and her hair was sticking up all over the place. She looked exhausted.

  “Yeah, it is,” I replied quietly. When we were sorting out furniture and books and documents, it was easy to be methodical and just get on with things. But sometimes we’d come across a particular picture and it would suddenly hit us all over again that there was someone who owned all of these things and now she was dead.

  We sat in silence for a moment, then my mum got up to put the television on. I went back to the photos, and again I was struggling to find anything I thought was worth keeping when I pulled a photo of my mum and dad out of the box.

  They were standing in front of my granny’s house, my dad’s arm wrapped around my mum’s shoulder. They weren’t posing, though: my dad was smiling down at my mum and she was beaming back at him mid-laugh. They looked so happy. Just looking at it put a smile on my face. They met in sixth form, when my mum had just turned seventeen and my dad was nearly eighteen. They couldn’t have been much older than that in the photo.

  I smiled and passed it to my mum. “Hey, this should cheer you up.”

  She took the photo and breathed in sharply. “Oh my god,” she said, the corner of her mouth lifting with a smile. “I remember this one! Your dad had just moved and we’d been together for, ooh, a couple of months maybe and – oh my god!” Her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

  I put my hand on hers. “Mum, you alright?”

  She nodded. “It’s just – it’s just – we were so young, Soph.”

  I smiled at her and was about to say something to her when one of the photos in the box caught my eye. It was bigger than the others and was in black and white, so I pulled it out of the box and frowned at it. I didn’t recognise anyone in there but there was a young boy at the front of the photo who looked vaguely familiar. It looked like a really old photo, like one of those Victorian family portraits. I turned it over and saw scribbled writing across the back, behind each person in the photo. My granny had labelled everyone and had even put a year – 1897.

  Some people just had names written behind them – “Elizabeth” was standing at the back alongside “James” – but others had more. My mouth dropped open in shock as it hit me: these people were all related to my granny, and that meant they were related to me.

  The man in the centre had the most impressive beard I had ever seen, and he was my granny’s grandfather. My great-great grandfather. And the boy in front of him, who had such a serious but familiar expression on his face despite looking as though he was only about nine, was my great grandfather.

  I put the picture down for a moment in shock. We didn’t know much about my granny’s family: her dad died when she was just two years old, so we never really asked much about them. And when you know very little about someone, they fade into a name. My “great-grandfather” wasn’t someone I had ever met or known so I hadn’t really thought about him much. But seeing this photo made them real. This was a whole part of my family that I had never known about or even thought about, but here they were, captured in this one moment, people who were related to me. My family.

  I passed the photo to my mum and she looked at it for a moment before softly saying, “Oh my god,” again, and yelling for my dad to come in. He put his head round the door and my mum beckoned him in and wordlessly handed him the photograph. He stared at it, then turned it over to read the names on the back, then looked at the people again.

  He grabbed his glasses and sat down heavily. He examined the photo closely again and laughed. “Wow,” he said, smiling broadly. He laughed again and held the photo up in my direction, looking from it to me and back to the photo again. My mum and I looked at each other, totally baffled.

  “What is it, Ian?” my mum asked, looking half-amused, half-concerned.

  He laughed again and shook his head. “It’s nothing much, really, and you’re probably going to think I’m mad now, but....” He trailed off and looked over at me again. “The boy in the front – my granddad, I suppose – he looks like you, Soph!”

  It was my turn to laugh now. “Me? Are you serious?”

  He said nothing but passed the picture back to my mum. She looked at me closely for a moment, then back at the photo, a smile creeping across her face. “Soph, your dad is useless with lookalikes, we both know that, but I can see what he means. I don’t know what it is but there’s just something there that reminds me of you.”

  I looked at her in disbelief and took the photo from her. I looked at the boy again, closely this time. I tried to put his clothing and the other people in the picture out of my mind, and just study his face. His cheeks were slightly chubby, his face round, and he definitely had the nose that everyone on my dad’s side of the family shared. He didn’t look like me exactly, but he didn’t not look like me either.

  “God,” I breathed, “that’s my great-grandfather there. My great-grandfather. Queen Victoria was still on the throne when this was taken. And he looks like me. It’s a piece of history, this photo is, and he looks like me!”

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