In my last post, I talked about how we mythologize the loved ones we’ve lost–in my case, Mom.

I also asked the pressing question: Who the hell is Walt? The references to this mystery guy were plenty in Mom’s high school yearbook, which recently came into my possession.


Well, it’s been a long year but so far it ain’t been too bad. It’s been great knowing you this year. Be good and keep ahol’ of ol’ Walter.



After last week’s post, I received emails from my mom’s sister, sister-in-law, cousin, niece, and best friend–a veritable social media reunion!–filling me in on bits I’d forgotten or never knew about my mom’s younger years. Spoiler: Mom did not keep ahol’ of Walter.

If you haven’t guessed, that’s him–the elusive Walt–up there with Mom, king and queen of the 1963 senior prom. I’m wondering if my mom’s Grandma Rose, a seamstress, made Mom’s dress. I’m also thinking not all the ladies in the court look pleased. I now remember my mom mentioning this “crowning,” saying it was only because she was the girlfriend of the king–that this was an automatic appointment to royalty. Until I saw this photo, though, I’d forgotten all that.

Really, some of the pleasure of remembering those we’ve lost must come from the selective forgetting, or curating–to use a popular word–of their personal narrative.

Because, as much as it is painful to forget, it is also painful to remember too much. To hold all the memories of my mom’s life, sickness, and death with me everyday would swamp me. So I am selective. As selective as I would be if I were writing her story (which I’m not–or not in major way, anyway).

I am aware that I gravitate to Mom memories from BC (before cancer), because cancer pisses me off and doesn’t deserve a starring role in my favorite Mom stories.

Which brings me back to photographs and those images we save and frame and hang on our walls for all to see. And the images that remain tucked away, like in a yearbook that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.

There are the female portraits that inspire whole books, even. There’s Tracy Chevalier’s super-famous Girl with a Pearl Earring–and Katie Ward’s Girl Reading and Carrie Callaghan’s A Light of Her Own (both on my TBR!).

I know many bloggers use photography as inspiration for blog posts. Do you? Have you ever used an old portrait as inspiration for a poem, essay, or story? Let us know, below!

Looking for more Rust Belt writing. See my categories above for Rust Belt author interviews and book reviews. And check out my writing and publishing advice, and more.

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23 thoughts on “The big reveal… and creating from personal portraits

  1. I’m always interested in looking back. My mom’s best friend in high school (class of 37) was a boy named Billy. They went everywhere together and the official yearbook comments about her mention him. He got engaged to one of mom’s best friends but died during WWII. Mom, on the other hand, was engaged to another man and she sent him a Dear John letter (he was in the army but there was no war yet) the same weekend she kissed my father. My parents were married 59 years.

    I took care of my mom the last two years of her life. Not only was it physically hard, but emotionally as well. It was hard because in her late 90’s her mind was deteriorating along with her body. So when I look back, I look back to the fiesty, firm, confident mother I grew up with. Not the woman who couldn’t remember her life stories. I look back at the woman who showered us with her love and affection, not the woman who said mean things to us to try to start a fight.

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    1. Wow, Jennifer. That is a beautiful story–both the love story and your story of caring for your mom. Thank goodness we have those memories of our mothers as young and strong and affectionate! When you speak of your mom on your blog it’s always with such fondness; it’s a real testament to your love for her that you can forget the times when she wasn’t herself and concentrate on the good times. Thank you so much for sharing that!


  2. I absolutely love looking at old pictures, especially those of my grandparents now that they have all passed on.
    While writing my WIP, I kept thinking about this black and white photo from 1955 of my grandparents, aged 19 or so, crammed in a photo booth at a local amusement park. It was taken about a year before they got married and a copy of it now sits on my dresser. My novel is based on the summer I lost my grandfather (and my first love), so writing this has been a difficult process, but keeping sight of that picture (instead of the sad memories) helped me move through the writing therapeutically, remembering that there was a time when they were young and innocent and in love and had their whole lives ahead of them.

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    1. Ack–you ladies are going to make me cry this morning with your beautiful stories! This is wonderful, Stacy–that you have this photo, a talisman almost, and that it has inspired your novel and helped you heal at the same time. Writing can be so therapeutic! I’m glad you’ve found that to be true. And, I figure when you get this novel published, the photo will have to be in there somewhere, if not featured on the cover, right? I look forward to reading more of your stories!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much!!
        It took me more than 10 years to be ready to write about that summer, and I am really happy with what I have so far. Now I just have to find an agent or publisher and someone who can incorporate that photo (and maybe some others) into the cover art! And thanks for the confidence boost! 😊

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  3. A terrific post, and great comments as well…my sister has been writing about some members of our family tree who passed away before we met them, and this professional achievements…stuff we never knew, because as kids we didn’t care to learn and I think as more time passes by it just fades from view…one thing: ‘ol Walt looks 37 years old there, so he must have had a tough time passing his classes!

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    1. That’s so commendable of your sister to record the old stories, because–yes–otherwise, they are just lost with the time. I wonder what kinds of achievements she’s dug up! In this age of social media, we’re all trying to make sure there aren’t too many photos and maybe less-than-flattering stories of us “out there,” but a couple generations ago you might have had a couple photo albums. But if they’re lost, the history can be lost too. Passing down those keepsakes and the oral histories is so valuable–and not just for us storytellers! Ha! Good ol’ Walt. He must have had an awesome personality. Really, lots of the guys in the yearbook look 37 instead of 17 or 18. I don’t know if it was the flattop haircuts or the glasses (the same glasses young guys are wearing now!).

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  4. Photos inspire most of my writing, actually. My mother has severe dementia and showing her old photos is sometimes the only way to pry a memory loose from those cranial folds.

    I’m glad you found Walt – great picture! My great-grandmother preserved a photo of one of her early loves. That, along with a snippet of story from my grandmother helped me figure out that little piece of her life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow–I appreciate you sharing that about your mom, Eilene. That’s hard, I’m sure, but I’m glad that old photos can work to unlock her memories. I’ve heard about old songs doing that, too.

      You, yourself, seem to be so tuned-in to your family’s history. I’m guessing uncovering it is very inspiring! I always look forward to your stories.

      And Walt–it really has been fun flipping through my mom’s teenage years!

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  5. LOL – poor Walt, lucky mom, queen by default. I agree with you those ladies do not look comfortable. Those tight-wasted dresses were hard to breathe in? I’m with you – I curate the memories of my mom too. It’s easier that way. I’m always using photos for inspiration. What’s your name on Goodreads? I’m following you on Facebook and Instagram, and here…but not on GoodReads. Did you finish Damyanti’s book yet? I finally did this morning…! Enjoy your weekend!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the styles of the 60s but agree those dresses look uncomfortable! Brings to mind my mom’s mom’s girdles (and her tsk-ing of women who didn’t wear proper “foundation” under their clothes). Boy, she’d be shocked at all the leggings worn today! I thought of you when considering using photos as inspiration to write. You have such a photographer’s eye! On Goodreads, I’m Rebecca–one of a bazillion probably. I think you found me–I linked up through Facebook. I have about 6 year’s worth of books to add, but that probably won’t happen. I reviewed Damyanti’s book there–it was very interesting. I’m not generally a crime novel reader. I most enjoyed the unique setting (or unique in that I don’t often read books set in India.) I’ll be interested to see what you thought of it!


  6. Old photos capture a moment in time, frozen in place but with threads and connections that speak to us and in family photos the threads are woven into who we are today and with luck will continue to be passed down. (Nice work)

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  7. Fab post Rebecca!

    This also makes me wonder how we will all be remembered in the future. I mean there are sooooo many photos of us all (as long as they are not lost on a floppy disc somewhere) our ancestors will have the problem of having far too many to choose from to curate, and too many connections to attempt to follow up on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a fantastic point, Josy! How in the world will someone be able to get a handle on our lives–as recorded as they are–to tell our stories? And as for connections and friends. Will people 100 or 1,000 years from now still distinguish between in-person and online friends? Ack–existential angst going on over here. But, really, thank you for visiting and commenting. I appreciate it!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think, as humans, we rely on selective memory. You’re right! If we remembered every little thing – we’d probably go crazy. I’ve read that people who go through extreme trauma often block out large portions of their experiences – no doubt the brain saving us from a life of stress. I lost my grandma (she was a best friend of mine) quite some time ago, and before that she suffered the effects of a severe stroke for eight years. Her long-term memory was still intact, her faith never wavered, but she never was the same. I mourned her for years before she was ever gone. Now I, like you with your mother, remember my grandmother before the stroke happened. Of course, the bad memories creep in now and then, but for the most part, she’s my grandma again – even in my dreams.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right! I mean, women have subsequent children after enduring childbirth for the first time–even traumatic childbirth–so I do think it’s partly biological that we forget the worst bits. And we protect our emotional health that way, too. I am sorry for what you went through with your grandma. I wish I didn’t understand what you mean by mourning a loved one before she’s gone, but I do. I mean, what a wonderful thing the human brain is (and mine’s no great shakes!) that we can call up the best times, most times. I really appreciate that you read and connected with my post, Erin. Thank you, as always, for stopping by! I look forward to reading about the next installment of your trip!

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