Lessons I Learned from Tragically Losing my Family Photo Album

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Photographs are keys to unlocking family history. They enable us to marvel at strong family resemblances and they remind us to laugh when we see ancestors making silly faces (selfies aren’t a new trend). For me, one particular photo opened the door to my career passion. It’s a picture of me at age three, wearing a dirty lifejacket on a boat ride. I laugh every time I see my grumpy little face staring into the camera lens. My parents remember this moment and they still chuckle when they see my expression. It’s a fun reminder of my determination – a trait I’ve had since I was little. My determination actually became an asset that helped me learn a valuable lesson when we tragically lost one of our family photo albums.


Growing up, I loved looking at my family photos and hearing stories about them. It was a way for me to connect with loved ones and understand our family history. During visits to my Nana’s home in downtown Toronto, I listened to the stories she would tell about her life in England before coming to Canada. I especially loved looking at the old photo album that held pictures of my father as a young boy. She would tell me about my father’s boyhood adventures in her beautiful, lilting accent. These pictures and stories were priceless treasures to me. Unfortunately, they did not stay with our family.

In her last year of life, Nana suffered from dementia and said and did a lot of things that were not in character with the woman we used to know. In a state of confusion, she gave away the family photo album that contained my father’s boyhood photos. It was a tragic loss for me.


After the sting of the loss wore off, my determination kicked in. I decided to start a project that I hope will bring joy to others and peace of mind to my family. I have become known to my family, friends, and local antique dealers as the “Vintage Photo Lady.” My mission is to reunite long-lost family photos with their rightful owners. By doing this, I heal my grieving heart and bring happiness to others who have lost their treasured family photos.

Family photos are my “rescues,” and through the help of Ancestry.com and social media, I hope to reunite priceless images with their families. My first rescue, which I first referred to as the “Mystery Lady,” is a photo I discovered early in my project. We have traveled around the world together on Ancestry.com, and I feel like her family has become a part of mine as I have uncovered her history. Trying to solve the mystery of who she belongs to has been a wonderful challenge that has made me feel like a detective!

lessons-i-learned-from-tragically-losing-my-family-photo-album-1Now I have a name to go along with her face: Florrie Miller. As I researched her, I wondered whether Florrie was her given name or a nickname? Florrie is short for Florence or Flora. Both of these were in the top ten names from 1886 to 1906. It is also a Shakespearean name that means “all’s well that ends well.” That beautiful etymology has inspired me to continue uncovering more about Florrie’s life.

Maybe you have a “Mystery Lady” in your own collection of family photos? Do you want to put a name to a face, but don’t know where to start? Often, you can begin by asking a few questions.

  • Who owned the photo before you?
  • Was it in an album when you received it?
  • Does it have any handwritten notes on the back, or along the sides?
  • Was it displayed in chronological order with other photos and memorabilia?
  • Does the photo trigger any of your relative’s memories?
  • Does the person pictured have something in common with a living relative? A specific facial feature?

Your interest in your family history will be contagious to others, and they may jump on board to help solve photo mysteries! But what if your relatives don’t live near you? Thanks to technology, you can quickly scan analog photos or even take a quick copy with your mobile device. Then, you can share it with long-distance relatives and find out what they know.

Social media is another great resource. In fact, here’s an entire post Ancestry.com did on how to build your family tree using social media! When you post a mystery photo on Facebook or Twitter, be sure to tag your family members. They may chime in with a helpful comment, or even a tip about identifying the person in the photo! Here are some tips from Save Family Photos about how you can use social media to discover the stories behind old photos.

As you continue delving into the stories behind your old family photos, here are other helpful resources for pin-pointing timeframes and finding clues to identify family members:

  1. AARP
  2. Family Search
  3. Genealogy Bank

Finally, the best advice I can give you for solving a family photo mystery is this: do not give up! Be persistent. The more details you uncover, the more magical your old family photos will become. And every time you add a detail to a photo, you enrich your family history with more stories that can be passed down to future generations.

Sheellah-KennedySheellah Kennedy is a librarian-turned-writer and a mother of three who strongly believes in the importance of photo preservation. Through her own personal loss of family photos, she created a project that involves rescuing pictures from antique stores and returning them to their rightful owners. This project not only brings joy to others, but has also taken her on a personal healing journey. Many have come to know her as the Vintage Photo Lady. She shares stories of families who are reunited with their photos. You can also find her tips on photo preservation on her Facebook page and her Twitter feed. 


Eleanor Bonner Anderson says:

July 31, 2015 at 4:50 am

Hi, Sheelah: My dad has all the family photos now from both his and my mom’s family. He also has his mom’s diaries starting in 1913 and running up to just a few years before her death in the early 1970’s. she and her brother were the family photographers and two of their photo albums match up pretty closely with nana’s diaries. there are gorgeous photos from around 1914-1916 of many of their friends. I would love to be able to locate their relatives and findo ut if they also have copies. There is even a box of gorgeous class photos from my mom’s grandfather’s (he was a kelsey from the ranching family in Merced falls) graduating class from UC Berkeley. i think it may be the first graduating class of engineering majors at ucb. how might i go about finding relatives of those folks whose names we know? Thanks, eleanor bonner anderson


rachellacour says:

August 27, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Wow! That is great. I would love to see some of these images.


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