The photo album, covered in worn green velvet and held together with ornate brass hinges, lay in a jumble of lace and candlesticks on an old table. It was, like everything else in the hall, a piece of used goods, the refuse of previous owners. Or, if you prefer, an antique.
I opened the album the way someone in the market for a new home might read the real-estate listings. Was this property something that would suit my family? I thought no more of the former owners than I might have thought of the family who planted the tree in the back yard or added the dormers to the roof of a house for sale.
But it turned out that this place was still inhabited. There were people living in this picture book, their story frozen, like their images, in time.
The story began with a pair of wedding portraits, husband and wife in profiles carefully marked 1898. The photos that followed showed one christening after another and then another followed by the images of these children growing up.
There were pictures of school and graduations, portraits of one rowing team and another lacrosse team. Two sons were shown grinning in their full military uniforms and then at home again, and finally married with their own children.
Standing in the middle of this antique show, I felt like a voyeur. It was as if I had happened upon a diary while touring a house and, just out of curiosity, read it.
I put the album back on the table. To have placed my own family in that book, I would have had to evict theirs. I wasn't ready to dislodge them from existence.
I couldn't help wondering how this family -- kept and groomed so carefully for posterity -- had ended up in the hands of strangers. Had the family come to an end, like Abraham Lincoln's, with the death of his great- grandchild last month? Had the album's line of inheritance been disrupted by geographic or emotional distance? Or had someone simply discarded history on the way to a smaller place or a new life?
I cared because I am also a haphazard keeper of family lore, a sometime recorder of family images. Each holiday season, I add a photographic entry, a set of slides or prints to the visual diary. I keep these pictures for pleasure and for some notion of history.
At the same time I am the curator of an older collection. Through death, divorce, remarriage, relocation, I have inherited the snapshots of earlier generations, the portraits of their weddings, the albums cleared from larger houses.
It is this family collection that has grown less familiar over time. I cannot name all the brothers and sisters lined up beside my girlish grandmother. My daughter doesn't know all the cousins on the beach with me. There are strangers among the snapshots. Like distant relatives at a family reunion, I need name tags to know how we are connected.
My predicament as both collector and curator is not unusual. Once it was just royalty whose histories were recorded, just the rich who had their images reproduced. Now it is the rare American without some record of his or her family life.
The camera has made the past democratic. Everyone can keep it. The tape recorder, the movie camera, the video are all tools of a middle-class memorabilia. We have the conceit that those who share our genes will want to share our lives.
Yet handling that green velvet album, I realized how easily one generation's memories may become the next generation's clutter. Instead of cherishing mementos, families may be flooded with them. Eventually, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren won't be able to hold all the images of all their ancestors any more than they could store all their furniture.
The antique for sale in this hall were heirlooms without heirs or old things that didn't fit into new lives. They were the leftovers of broken homes. So too were these photographs.
Pictures are far more personal but far less valuable than necklaces or chairs. One person's priceless snapshot may be worthless to another. The family story in the green velvet album was created by someone trying to pluck one family from time and from the multitude. It was created by someone writing a personal history out of snapshots. But 50 years later, there was nobody left who cared. How sad to see such a family estate fall into the hands of strangers.