I recently discovered the identity of my maternal grandparents. My mother was adopted. She had never seen an image of her parents and was uncertain of their names. When the mystery of their identity was eventually solved and I viewed their faces in a photograph for the first time, I felt immediately connected with them and culturally linked to the past. My reaction was quietly introspective, overtly affirmative, and genuinely positive. I was overcome by immense feelings of joy, healing, and understanding produced by a deep sense of connectedness, belonging, and genealogical closure.
The cognitive knowledge and reactivity in response to those who are familiar to us is heart-rending. Emotional intelligence has a profound influence on our instinctual confirmation of identity. The psychological reactions produced by great works of art, and the feelings they evoke in the viewer, has been the subject of extensive study by artists and psychologists for many centuries. Understanding visual stimuli and the linking of personal memories to what is being viewed suggests that the experience is highly complex. The major neurological stimulus the photographs of my grandparents triggered in my brain were the same passionate, dramatic, and compelling emotions produced by the world’s greatest works of art—the equivalent of the Mona Lisa—deeply profound and eternally remembered.
Photographs are a slice of time and place that will never happen again. The visual images I have of my grandparents are priceless to me. Knowing the historic highlights of the pivotal points in my family’s history is timeless and enduring. Their memory, preserved in the black and white images of their faces that were left behind, creates a nostalgic sense of yesteryear of precious times gone by. My grandmother was an attractive young girl of German heritage who had a fling with a flamboyant Italian man of questionable character. He was a young, prosperous, married man with a family and a notorious reputation, but to those who befriended him, he was a good person. His wife and children and extended family loved him. He was a leader within the Italian community and a respected godfather to many individuals.
Story telling fascination brings to life tales of our ancestors and their accomplishments. This is how we learn about legends of the past; life lessons are taught; meanings behind family traditions are understood; and factoids become the ties that bind. Discovering the identity of my grandparents and seeing an image of their faces for the first time has been a surreal mix of fact and melodramatic fantasy.