Box of old family photos bring new perspective

Published 5:45 am Saturday, March 12, 2022

My mother and father keep our old photos in their hall closet in a sturdy old Pabst Blue Ribbon box.
Sifting through old photos is a glorious experience — one, we now know, that relieves aches and pains by calming the brain, according to a recent study.
The last time I looked through the box with my mother, we came across a black-and-white photo of a little girl.
That photo was taken 82 years ago, when the girl had her whole life before her.
Elizabeth Hartner Purcell at two years of age.
She didn’t know yet that one of her sisters would be struck with polio 12 years later, that her father would die at 49 just a month before her wedding, that she’d have six children and 17 grandchildren, or that she’d outlive two of her six siblings.
That was my mother’s picture. It was taken when she was 2.
Today we take photos on a daily — or hourly — basis. But before the era of smart phones, photos were taken mostly to document special occasions.
The old black-and-white photos often show family members in formal attire posing for graduation portraits, weddings and other important events.
Many require the help of our eldest family members to identify who the people in the photos are.
I found my father’s black-and-white high school graduation photo. He was trim and handsome with a thick head of hair. The photo had red coloring around his lips.
When I asked my mother what the coloring was, she told me it was her lipstick — that she kissed the photo every day while my father served overseas during the Korean War.
One of my favorite photos is a black-and-white photo taken of my dad’s father and mother at a Lake Erie beach in the 1920s.
My grandfather, who died way too young in 1937 at the age of 34, wore a swimsuit that had a top, as was the fashion of that time.
I bear my grandfather’s full name — Thomas James Purcell — as does my dad.
I always wished I got to meet him, as I heard many stories from other family members, now gone, who got to experience his generosity and humorous spirit.
My grandfather’s photo causes considerable pause because, I now realize, his time on this earth wasn’t so long ago.
When I was born in 1962, my grandfather would have been 59 — my age right now.
I know now that the years go by way faster than I ever anticipated — and that a typical lifespan is but a blip in time.
I remember as though it were yesterday what it was like to grow up in the 1970s — how can that be a half-century ago?
It wasn’t so long ago that I was born — which means 59 years before I was born wasn’t so long ago, either.
That takes us to 1903 when cars were just being put into production and the airplane was just invented.
Penicillin wouldn’t be used until 1945 — eight years too late to cure my grandfather from the strep infection that claimed his life.
The people in our family photo box experienced great economic booms and busts, five wars and many technological miracles.
The old photos bring a perspective and calm.
They help me realize how precious our time is and make me want to work harder to leave the world a better place than I found it.
Because the time is not so far off when one of my descendants will point to a digital photo of me and ask his mother, “Who’s that man in this old photo, Mom?”

Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email him at

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