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23 June 2020

Quarantine Quests: Family Photos Brought to Life

The Quarantine Quests story was written by CGS member Nancy Cork.

I took advantage of this social distancing time by working on, and finally finishing, a personal project. This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my mother, Evalyn Biddle. When she passed away in 1995, I promised my sisters that we would have a special celebration of our mother’s life in 2020… little knowing what form that celebration would take.

Evalyn Biddle at 6 months, in 1920 Minneapolis
I inherited boxes of family photographs from my mother. My curiosity about those photos of people I knew little about drove me to begin researching my family history, and I have loved pursuing genealogy for the last 25 years. I have learned so much about my ancestors, three, four, ten… even twelve generations back. Genealogy has been my passion. But as I turned to think of how to commemorate my mother, I realized that there was so much that I didn’t know about her life. Not that my parents were secretive, or didn’t enjoy reminiscing about the past. Rather, I just didn’t think to ask questions, to get the conversations started. Like so many people, I always assumed that there would be plenty of time to talk tomorrow, and I prioritized my own present over other people’s past. So now I found myself trying to understand my mother’s life in order to pay tribute to her.
Two historic floods, in 1978 and 1987, engulfed Minneapolis
during Evalyn's lifetime

Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot doing genealogical research, and there are so many resources available today that aid in tracking down information of the most surprising kind. I used my research skills to build a timeline for my mother’s life. And, through DNA matches, I was able to connect with “long-lost” relatives, and get answers to lingering questions.

I decided to make a multimedia presentation based on the old family photographs. I gathered every picture that I could find and scanned them all; then I got family members across the country to scan and email more photos to me. That was actually the easy part. Much more difficult was identifying each photo. I labeled each picture starting with the year (using “circa” when I was just guessing) and then the names of the people in the photo, adding a location or description or sometimes just a number, to help keep track of the hundreds of photographs. Putting the date first allowed me to easily sort the photographs chronologically.
Pages from the 1938 Centralian high school yearbook
I scanned and saved most of the photos as TIFF files. Next I copied each photograph over again as a JPEG, and labeled it as a copy. To those copies I did simple photo edits, marveling at how dramatic a transformation something like auto color correction can make! I used only the edited photographs in JPEG form in my slideshow program. I have used this program many times to make photo slideshows of vacations and birthdays, even once for a wedding. It allows one to creatively move around the photographs, zooming in and out, panning, focusing on details, etc. Though the program has many bells and whistles, I kept as my mantra, “What would Ken Burns do?” as I worked with each photograph, and tried to keep the special effects to a minimum. Though, to be honest, there were times when I was channeling George Burns instead, as I gave in to the temptation to ham up a family joke or two!

My genealogical research skills came into play as I fleshed out the story the photographs told. I dug up census, birth, marriage records, school report cards, employment records, church records, military files, etc. I traced down “FAN” (friends, associates, and neighbors) names, addresses and even phone numbers to find a more complete understanding of what was happening and when. Most of all, I used old family letters to tell my mother’s story. I am very fortunate to have a large collection of letters from and to her, and being able to use excerpts of her own words in my tribute meant a lot.

Seven-year-old Evalyn with her mother, 1927
After compiling pictures and information, I next tried to find themes for the show. Some were obvious choices: her school days, her career, her friends through the years. Others were maybe a little eccentric – for instance, my mother always loved dogs, and everyone loves a good dog story, right? – so it was natural to include a section devoted to her canines and their capers, and top it off with a newspaper article about a brutal three-dog fight that my 7-year-old mom heroically tried to break up, necessitating a rescue from her 9-year-old brother, and a trip to the hospital for everyone. I then included statements from both my mother and uncle reflecting on, and disagreeing about, that incident.

My slideshow tribute was further personalized with a musical soundtrack. I had asked my sisters to suggest songs that were reminiscent of our mother. That was a lot of fun for all of us. After several months of searching, singing and selecting, I had to overcome the challenges of converting old LPs and cassette tapes to MP3 files. I finally amassed a digital collection of almost 70 songs – all songs that my mother loved. In the end, I included snippets of 37 songs in the slideshow, as well as a recording of my mother singing, and an excerpt of a reading that she did. It was amazing to me how much the music enhanced the experience of looking at the family photographs. No surprise, I guess… can you imagine watching, say, Casablanca or Sleepless in Seattle without the soundtracks? I could evaluate and arrange the photos for hours and feel detached from the images, and then as soon as I played the slideshow with the “perfect” song, emotions would soar.

A soundtrack of favorite songs added emotion to the slideshow

Before finishing the slideshow, I asked immediate family members to contribute memories of my mother. Everyone chose to send me audio files, and hearing each story – funny, respectful, poignant, or loving – was terrific. The final production ran for 90 minutes and included more than 600 photographs, documents and other images. Despite the quarantine stay-at-home orders, I was able to share the tribute to my mother with my family, near and far, by screen-sharing on Zoom. We chose to view the show on Mother’s Day, of course.

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