Instant Relatives

There used to be a store in Half Moon Bay, California, named Half to Have It.  I loved to walk through the front yard, a labyrinth of wrought iron furniture—gates and swings, fountains, and birdbaths—all connected into small outdoor rooms by sweet-smelling flowered vines.  Colored crushed glass blended with white pebbles and gray pea stones crunched under my feet.  Sounds of Eddie Fisher singing, “Oh My Papa,” drifted from the store and brought back memories of the 1950s and my home on Long Island in New York.  This store was a step into my childhood.

Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mantle greeted me as I entered.  A left turn took me into Grandma’s kitchen where dated cookbooks and carefully folded checked 1950s aprons and dishtowels sat on top of a hutch.  Good china and silverware were placed on a dining room table.  As I walked from room to room, I saw bedroom furniture with hand-sewn linens and quilts.   A brown plaid suitcase with straps stood open on one bed, ready to be packed.  Period paintings adorned the walls, and display cases housed vintage jewelry.  Small tricycles and wind-up toys lay against cribs filled with period dolls.

A large table in the corner of the store was spread with old photos dating from the 1920s through the 1970s.   There were family pictures of all occasions—weddings, picnics, birthday parties, babies.  Professionally posed men and women with children stared up at me along with prom shots of girls in Cinderella dresses and boys in tuxedos.

A sign on the wall behind the table suggested that the people in these photos could be your “Instant Relatives.” A clever businessman has filled a niche. If someone didn’t have a family, or his family just didn’t take pictures, these would be perfect. For just a small amount, I could buy several, frame them, and hang them on my wall.  Then I could introduce my guests to my family. I could pick my mother, father, and siblings.  I could even pick the family dog.  If I’m really clever in my choices, my visitors might say, “You look like your mother.”

Do I want to hint at royalty?  I could hang my picture between a store-bought Prince Charles look alike with jug ears and a 1950s prom queen with a tiara.  I could frame an old picture of one of the royal families and hint at being the grand offspring of a love child spawned under the royal sheets.

I saw one picture of a 1940s lady with her poodle.  “That’s mom with Tiffany,” I could say.  “Poor Tiffany, she was hit by a Knudsen Milk truck back in 1952.”

I was amused at the countless possibilities this table offered me to change my life by creating a new family.

Who are the people in these photographs?  Why are they here?  Did their families die out leaving no one to care for them?  Did remaining family members take them to Good Will because they didn’t want them?  These pictures represent important times in people’s lives.  How could they end up discarded on a table to be picked at by strangers?

 Is this where my picture might have ended up?  Would someone look at my photo and say, “Who is this woman?”  Would they pick me out of all the pictures on the table to be their new mother?  What would they say about me?  “There’s Mom.  She smelled of roses and made the best brownies!”

I don’t have to purchase an instant family of unknown persons because I already have one sitting in boxes in my garage.  They were my cousins or uncles or aunts or grandparents or even great grandparents. Their story has meaning for me, but I am left to make that meaning up—just like the instant relatives at Half to Have it.  Why couldn’t someone in my family have taken the time to jot notes on the back of the photos indicating that this woman was my grandmother, or this man was my father’s best friend.  Why couldn’t I have been more interested in these pictures when my mother and father were alive so I could have asked them who they were?

I don’t want the photos in my garage to end up in the memorabilia section of a store, but I’m sure the people who I’ve viewed on the table at Half to Have It didn’t want that to happen either.  Maybe I don’t know my relationship to the people in my family photos, but I can do something.  I can take the time now to write my name on the back of my pictures and identify the other people and animals with me.  Even if my photos end up in boxes in grandchildren’s garages, they’ll bring them out eventually and will know who they are looking at.

I hope my photo doesn’t end up on a table at Half to Have It in Half Moon Bay in the future, but at least the person who purchases me as an “Instant Relative” can turn my picture around, see my name, and say, “This was my mom.  Her name was Mary.”

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