How our family photographs tell our stories

Family Photographs: Dency Anne

First in a series exploring the relationship between individuals, memories and memorials. For more information, please visit

I used to run a poetry workshop. One Wednesday a month, poets from Suffolk would get together to share poems we had written and give each other feedback. We would usually have between five and ten people at each workshop: this range would allow both a comfortable atmosphere and enough time to get to everyone’s poems.

The idea for my poem came from one of my family photographs, so old that I never knew any of the people in it.

One week, I realised at the last minute that we were only going to have three people attending. What on earth would we do for two hours? I decided to introduce a writing exercise. We were poets, after all. We would write poetry. I remembered an exercise we had done at uni where we used postcards of famous works of art to inspire our poems.
I don’t, however, happen to have postcards of famous works of art, and there was no time to go to the library. I rushed around my apartment looking for art books. I discovered I have very few art books. Instead, I grabbed some children’s books. They have illustrations, right? On my way out the door, worried that the variety of images I was offering would be too limited, I grabbed some family photographs.

There may only have been three of us, scribbling on the spot, but some great ideas came out of that particular workshop. My friends’ poems seemed to rise, fully formed, from images as different as a Grecian bird print and a broken wheelchair sketch. As for me, I wrote four drafts that night a month ago, and one of them in particular has stuck with me. The idea for my poem came from one of my family photographs, so old that I never knew any of the people in it.

Somewhere — my messy apartment? a storage locker in Canada? — there exists a larger copy of the same photograph with names and dates on the back. I can’t remember, but I think the woman in the back, on the left, is a great-great aunt of mine. I think her first and middle names might be “Dency Anne”. If I rang my aunts in Canada there’s a good chance I would be able to discover her last name: my father has two sisters, both interested in genealogy. Chances are I would get two different stories: my aunts aren’t close, and historical records can be hard to locate, particularly for women who disappeared into their married names. More than once during my childhood, I heard about different versions of the same person or event. I was young then, though, and didn’t much care one way or the other. Now, in my thirties, living in another country, I look at the photograph and I wonder.

I wonder what Dency Anne’s own story would be. If she had had a chance to tell us about her life, what would she have chosen to say? How would she have chosen to say it? Are the glasses she’s wearing a result of too many late-night attempts at poetry by candlelight? Is her high collar protecting a voice that loved to sing, even if it was off-key? Does her patterned blouse indicate an artistic bent or merely the need to do more laundry?

I looked at her hands in the photograph, and they made me wonder what story she had to tell.

Echoleft is a place that exists right now, a place where we can save our stories for our own ancestors. We can preserve the stories of those we’ve lost recently, and we can try to recreate the stories of those we lost a long time ago. We can decide what story we want to tell, and how we want to tell it. Echoleft is personal. It’s for ourselves, and for other people, and it’s as public or as private as we choose to make it.

I didn’t write my poem about Dency Anne, or even about the other woman in the back row, the one whose piercing gaze could be going straight from her time to our own. I wrote a poem about the little girl instead, the one holding her mother’s hand with one hand, almost holding onto her father’s arm with the other. I don’t know who she was or what happened to her. She’s probably not related to me. But I looked at her hands in the photograph, and they made me wonder what story she had to tell.

untitled poem

it’s been years already

I wonder if I will remember this day

my hand clenching your hand

will I remember why

I don’t remember why and

you look as though you are already, at this moment,

wondering why you are here

what you are doing

who we are all