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Prelude: Conversations with my Grandmother

Like many children, I grew up listening to stories in bed before going to sleep. My grandmother had a fantastic book of all the traditional fairy tales, which we read from frequently, and sometimes she would tell stories about her life.

When I was seven years old and my sister was six, our mom passed away after a long and tiresome battle with a brain tumor. She had multiple surgeries, chemotherapy treatments and physical therapies, and lived much longer than anyone anticipated. Not long after, my grandma began to suffer the symptoms from a rare neurodegenerative disease that had already taken the lives of her younger brother and father, though at a much slower pace. She began to lose mobility and it became increasingly hard for her to communicate. Like Benjamin Button she seemingly went backward in time, an old lady who was like a child. When she wanted to communicate and tried, all her body allowed for her to do was cry. And so my sister and I learned to read for other communicative cues, but as I got older I began to realize that those stories she started to tell us when we were little–the complete versions–we would never hear.

It is an innate desire and need to know where you come from. Children ask this question endlessly; we all grow up forming the foundations of our identity on the knowledge we gain of our immediate environments and ancestral history, as far back as oral and written testimony allows us to remember. These building blocks of culture, tradition, language, history, and ancestry form our essential understanding of who we are, our place in the world today. Women have traditionally been the ones to pass on that understanding and sense of belonging.

In the absence of those women in my family, who carried those essential stories, I turned to the photographs they left behind. Though they could not relay this essential knowledge through voice, they left a puzzle of captured moments that document their experiences. I became fascinated by the old photographs of family and friends, frozen in time in their youth or age, people and times long gone, or changed. And so with my mother's and grandmother's albums I began to weave together the stories– answers to the questions I never got to ask. These photographs have taught me much about my family's experience, and inadvertently about the history of the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest.

They say that we know more about our ancestors now than ever before because of photographs: physical appearance as well as hints of personality and lifestyle (Silber). But I wonder if it's that the modes of gaining this knowledge have changed: before, people knew their ancestors because families lived together in small communities and people had children much younger than today, whereas families today are generally confined to the nuclear unit with brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and grandparents spread all across the nation and the world in many cases. Photographs do, however, allow us to see our ancestors at times long passed in their lives. For instance, I know from photographs what my mom looked like as a baby, and my grandmother, too. I can lay side-by-side photographs of my closest ancestors at various times throughout their lives (or just flip through the pages of one family album) and see the way time passed in their faces, the styles of the times and the moments in their lives.

Within each photograph lives the essence of the person pictured, a tiny piece of their soul captured forever in the negative or frame, on the paper or in pixels. A photograph is created by light reflecting off the person and their surroundings, compressed through the lens of the camera and imprinting physically or digitally onto a light-sensitive film or sensor. Not only is the person's physical appearance captured, but the energy they omit as well–what Walter Benjamin calls the "aura". In this way, each photograph made of us preserves our presence, exactly–unmoving, unchanging–as we were in that moment. Happy or sad, wise or naive, prepared or unprepared, we are frozen in time as such. The person we were lives on forever in the photograph, while we continue to grow and change.

Grandma Marie c.1970

Grandpa Gene c. 1968 & 1957

Photo op with an old growth on a logging truck headed down the mountain. My mom c. 1968

Football practice c. 1976 | Adopted fawns on the Benson farm 1964

Bennett farm dog, c. 1944

Ida Agnes Smith, my grandmother's mother, c. 1936 & 37

Unknown members of the Smith family, c. 1937

Gene Amburgy, c. 1956

15th Annual Loggers Jubilee Princesses c. 1957

Postcard photograph of Main Street, c. 1960

Kim with Grandpa Bennett c.1960 & 62

Girls Softball team, coached by Gene Amburgy. c. 1968

Summer excursion c. 1968

Project produced as part of the Humanities Capstone program at the Evergreen State College, Spring 2019.

Dedicated to the memory of Wilma Marie Bennett-Amburgy.


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