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He Inherited Old Photos and Used Them to Resurrect Family History

'Throwback Thursday' piqued the interest of a new generation

spinner image stack of old photos in a pile showing a family through the years

My uncle and my mom died within 18 months of each other. Both times, I inherited thousands.

Not dollars — family photos. Pictures were stuffed into shoeboxes, manila envelopes and supermarket plastic bags — mostly unmarked and in no order whatsoever. Overwhelmed, I stashed them in the basement and tried not to think about them.

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Then along came COVID-19 and months of lockdown. I decided if I was ever going to sort through the boxes, this was the time. Laying out the photos on my dining room table was like curating a museum exhibit of 20th-century photography. They began with studio portraits of my grandparents in rich sepia tones and progressed to blurry black-and-white images taken with my father’s Brownie box camera. Color and a bit more quality arrived in the photos taken after he bought a Kodak Instamatic flashcube camera.

As I started sorting, I realized that my sister and I were now the family’s historians. It was our responsibility to make sure others knew who all the people in these photos — their ancestors — were. That’s when I started Throwback Thursday. Every Thursday, I selected five of these old prints and snapped a photo of each on my ­iPhone. I wrote a bit about each one: who was in it, how they were related, what they were like. Then I texted them to my nieces and nephews and their children. (I didn’t email them. Gen Zers detest email.)

When I sent an Army photo of my father, I relayed that during World War II, he was stationed on Governors Island in New York. One night he went AWOL to visit a woman he had just met. The MPs caught him, and he received 30 days of confinement to the post. He eventually married that woman — my mom.

When I sent a shot of my Uncle Danny, I wrote about the time he invited his parish priest over for lobster dinner. It was a hot day, Danny had one too many, and when dinnertime arrived, my tipsy uncle stumbled and sent a lobster flying across the table and onto the floor. (Thirty years later, my aunt still had not fully forgiven him.)

All the while during this fun project, I was painlessly digitizing the best photos.

Create Your Own Throwback Thursday

Here are some tips for sorting through old photos and some ideas for sharing them.

Work in short intervals. Taking this approach will reduce the number of times you feel overwhelmed and just want to throw everything in a box and leave it for your kids to deal with.

Be ruthless. Toss out vacation photos of scenery, any poor-quality shots and most negatives.

Learn from your past. Burn any articles of clothing you still own that you were wearing in photos taken in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Tell family stories, warts and all. Yeah, two of my great-uncles were arrested a few times for bookmaking. Who cares?

My favorite part of Throwback Thursday was watching the younger generation react to the styles of yesteryear. When I was in college, I had a thick, round Afro — second only to that of Linc from the old TV show Mod Squad. My nieces and nephews couldn’t believe I ever looked like that. The worst razzing I received was when I sent a photo of me in brown-and-white-striped herringbone bell bottoms. (I deserved the razzing.)

The project was often bittersweet. I loved seeing photos of deceased family members, but sometimes I found myself mourning their loss all over again. At other times, I wished I could magically jump into a photo and warn the person of a bad decision they were about to make or a tragedy that awaited them.

Conversely, I greatly enjoyed figuring out how old my parents were in a photo and where they were in their journey through life, and seeing how my journey compares.

When I announced that I was running out of photos to send and stories to share, my nieces and nephews were genuinely disappointed. Throwback Thursday had become something they looked forward to every week. I took that as a win.

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But like Al Pacino says in The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Cleaning out the basement, I found another box of photos from my parents. There were hundreds of images, including the only known photo of one great-uncle and a photo of another great-uncle from 1945 that I think ran in Stars and Stripes (it has ­government-approval stamps on the back). So Throwback Thursday came back in a big way.

It’s been said that you die twice — once when you take your final breath, and again when someone says your name for the last time. I hope I manage to keep some beloved members of my family alive for a good while longer.

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