My eyes look back

There’s a photograph of my father’s mother as a girl. It’s a sepia-toned picture of her immediate family out the front of their house. In it you can see her broad brown eyes looking back. Her mother also has brown eyes and they’re like my eyes. My sister has them and our sons too.

These brown eyes are a dominant trait in my family. My daughter has the same chocolate-brown irises. They’re eyes like my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s in the photograph. The sepia adds a richness to the brown tones and underscores our family trait.

The photograph also shows my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather. Something about him reminds me of the man she would marry. The roundness of the head maybe? Definitely the beard, which is funny because my partner likes me to wear a beard too. I have a head more like my mother’s though, I think.

My bearded great-grandfather is remembered by my father as a grumpy and distant figure, which seems apt. My kids probably remember their grandfather as a distant but lavish figure. He wears a beard too. His brown eyes are framed by grey hair but they have that crinkle around them that darkens when smiling. My aunt has that too and my uncle did though I can’t think of seeing him smile.

My grandmother died when I was young, so I can’t remember her eyes. Photography is a technology that allows me to reflect on my family history across decades. In a similar way social media reflects my family from across the world. When I visit Facebook I see my family from across the world. It reminds me of that line ‘A friends’ eye is a good mirror’.

The old photograph also shows my grandmother’s brother, who has written a book on his research into the family tree. It’s quite fascinating to read about the interests of my forebears and achievements and consider the shapes of our lives. To look over history and to select moments from their lives that resonate with me, or share something of my own experience. It’s a form of ego-centric curation of facts that supports the story of me.

At university an anthropology lecturer said that kinship is a social construct. I’d guess that family history is too. In a way we collect our families by choosing who we recognise as part of our own history. I like this idea because my family has given me siblings after the divorce of my parents. Although relationships between our parents aren’t recognised, my brother and sisters and I share brown eyes.

My siblings and I may not have eyes like my grandmother and great-grandmother in the photograph but the colour is a common feature we share, like our history of growing up together. As time passes I appreciate more and more this history as it is a pleasure to understand ourselves through each other and continue to share our family ties largely via technology in the present.