This I Believe: I Believe In Old Photographs

Aug 16, 2018

Essayist Loren Benati.

This essay originally aired on April 12, 2018.  

A picture is worth a thousand words, and it also captures a lifetime of history. One single photograph can capture the essence of a culture: the outfits, the cars, the houses, the lifestyle. You can listen to old stories of how your great-grandparents met, or how your great-grandmother came over on a boat and worked night and day to support herself. But those stories don’t feel nearly as real as seeing the images that captured such moments. And I believe nothing brings a family together like sharing memories of the past. 

I recently took a trip to upstate New York. Almost my entire extended family grew up and is still living there. I ended up staying in my grandparents’ house, the house my mother and her two sisters grew up in. I remembered going over to Grandma and Poppy’s house all the time in the summer to swim and in the winter for Christmas. My cousins used to gather for pasta salad in the spring and to do homework together in the fall. A house that already makes us all feel nostalgic holds what will trigger conversations that last hours: thousands of Polaroid pictures and photo albums. During that trip to New York, I sat in the living room by the wood-burning fireplace with my Grandma, Aunt Kelly and Aunt Sistie. My grandfather walked in carrying a box full of photographs of him and my grandmother growing up, both of their extended families and the family they built together. I couldn’t wait to dig in and see what those photographs had captured. 

My grandfather started by showing us old school photos of my mom and aunts. Staring at those old photos helped me learn more about the time period when they attended school and the styles that were popular then. In one photo, my mom was dressed in a polka-dotted button-up with a ruffled sweater on top. Her hair was short with tight curls and a pair of gigantic glasses sat on top of her nose. I joked with my grandma, “How could you let Mom out of the house in that?!” and she just laughed. More and more photos of my mom and aunts started circulating and I could see how my cousins looked like my mom when she was younger, and my siblings looked like my aunt. Then my grandmother took out photos of her and my grandfather when they were younger. Seeing my extended family together in one photo sparked a conversation about distant relatives that now live all around the world, in Ireland and London and Hawaii.

One box of photos led to family stories and family bonding. We’re always told to live in the moment, but taking time to reflect on the past and how you got to where you are today is also special. Old photographs bring out the good and the bad, the hardships and the successes—but above all, they remind us of old memories and help us create new memories together.

I believe in old photographs.

Loren Benati is a junior at Penn State majoring in nursing.