The Historic Collection

All the pictures from my early childhood show a little girl with a very anxious look on her face – two little dots between the eyebrows denote a lot of muscle work in that region.

There is an adorable picture of my sister and yours truly in a bus.  I am four and she is five years old.  I still remember that event.  Our family were on our way from the train station to a small hostel in the Norwegian mountains when, in one of the many twists and turns along the way, all the adults were sent out to push the bus on the steep snowy road.  If there was a reason to look a little anxious, you wouldn’t know from the smile on my sister’s face.  Me, however…

I often wondered what scared me so.

For the past month, I have been back in “ye ole country” helping my mother adjust to living in an assisted facility.  She had been living alone for years with steadily increased help since my father passed away, but already then, she was very dependent on him.  After having had full service 24-7 over the summer when I stayed with her for five weeks, she realized that she no longer felt safe living alone, even with help coming in four times every day, and we set the process of moving in motion.  I am grateful that I have had these opportunities to spend time with her on her schedule.  That has not been an option for my sister who, along with her demanding job, angelically has taken care of all the practicalities for both mom and our childless aunt.

Part of my task on this visit was to help clean up and out in my mother’s home.  It got a bit delayed, as our aunt, my mother’s sister, died in the middle of my visit right after mom had moved.  So now sis also has an estate to deal with.  But we got through the first sorting.

Cleaning up, I also sorted the “historic collection”.  You probably have a historic collection as well.  I do.  It has the little suit my daughter wore when she was three days old and came home with me from the hospital.  And a report card that says I have terrible handwriting.  My parents’ historic collection was considerably bigger with many letters from before I was born.  And many letters from my father when he traveled for weeks on end.  It also included photo albums documenting my ever-anxious eyebrows.

I have made all kinds of hypotheses over the years about that early childhood period and whether I might have been put in the far end of the house to cry myself to sleep or in other ways displeased my parents.  It is easy to make up stories when you don’t have much memory of those early days and so many knitted eyebrows in the pictures.

This time I had all the photo albums from 100 years to take home and scan.  Some of people I have no idea who were, and my mother had long forgotten – if she ever knew.  Some are of my very young and lovely mother and of her sister and brother.

As I moved forward in time to the “newer” photos, I noticed something interesting:  my eyebrows stopped being knitted.  It happened at the same time my young face got a pair of glasses on the nose – around the age of five or six.  Relieved, I have now rewritten my story.

Mom asked me to read her some of the old letters from my father.  He also had a terrible handwriting.  Hearing all these letters read, I think she revised some of the stories she had told herself about how much he cared about her.  For the better.

Cleaning up and out, indeed.

A very entertaining post from Alan Culler recently reminded us that we should go back to the data rather than rely on our assumptions.  I concur.

Have you looked through your historic collection recently? 


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. I look through my historic collection of photos to remember my childhood and attachment to my recent loss of my mother.
    So, your post moved me. Your stories are emotional and you shall never forget being good to your mother and aunt. This reflects who you are, Charlotte.

    I enjoyed reading this ” It is easy to make up stories when you don’t have much memory of those early days and so many knitted eyebrows in the pictures.
    How do you know I do this as well?

    • I didn’t know that you knitted your brows as well, Ali, but when I look at bespectacled faces on my Zoom screen, I see many who have troubles seeing the screen and go to all kinds of troubles.

      Because my nose is what it is, my glasses slide down my nose from time to time and I do this nose scrunch that might be interpreted as me not liking something. My apologies in advance, should you ever observe it and wonder…

      I hope that you find solace in looking through pictures from your childhood. As long as we remember those who have gone before us, they are not really gone.