Who are these ghosts and what stories can they tell in this holiday season?

Want to gift the most priceless present ever this Christmas?

No, not a Tiffany diamond. Or a new teddy bear or iPhone. And definitely not something from the Neiman Marcus catalog.

Rather, it is a ghost.

Seriously. Can you imagine a more exciting, eye-popping sensation that presenting a ghost at the family gathering? One with its own history.

Surely the ghosts in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol will have been read, talked about and possibly seen. Those ghosts of Christmas past, present and future that haunted Ebenezer Scrooge into being a better human being remain the classics.

As are the fun ones that haunt the Whaley House and the Hotel del Coronado.

But, the ghosts most desirable this season, do not require an admission ticket, a ferry boat ride across the harbor or even a library card to check out The Man Who Invented Christmas.

The most valuable ghosts are hiding in a drawer, a shoebox, an album, or a memory bank.

Go find them. Find that photograph that speaks to you.

Everyone has a photograph. And every photograph tells a story. A fascinating story that only needs discovery and the telling.

And you, the gift-giver, are the main ingredient in the story.

You own the photograph. You may or may not know all of the ghosts living in the image.

But, you have an idea. An interest. And you have a memory. You also possess an inkling of how to find out more. From a friend, a neighbor, a relative or even a newspaper.

Find that photograph of ghosts. Watch it. Study it. Listen to it. Ask it questions. And begin an adventure worth more than any gift-wrapped offering.

No need to be an historian, a genealogist, a tech wizard, or even a great reader.

You only need that photograph.

As an example, I present my own experience. Shortly, before my mother died, a large framed photograph appeared on the family dining room wall.

It pictured seven women, all elegantly dressed, with cameo pins attached at the collar of their late 19th century style, custom-made gowns. They looked to be rather well-to-do aristocratic types. Curious, I asked my mother, “Who are those women?”

“That is your grandmother and her sisters,” she said.

Obviously, taken aback (as I had heard of all the “walking miles in the snow and milking the cows” stories about my mother’s farm life in North Dakota), I neglected to ask more.

I wish I had. After her passing, that photograph began to haunt me.

Luckily, my godmother, aunt, and the woman who—in the absence of a doctor at Mercy hospital—literally delivered me into this world (she was an RN, like my mother) decided that we should take a journey.

We went back to the Dakotas, by train, to visit the remaining relatives with more stories, photographs, a trip to the cemetery, and some fascinating stories.

Suffice it to say, I was wrong about grandma and her sisters. And humbled.

These women were farmers, seamstresses (they made the dresses in the photograph), homesteaded land in their own name (rare in any state), rode horses and could shoot, skin and cook their own dinner.

In short, my grandmother (also a suffragette who held meetings in her house) would be amazed that I made a living standing in front of students and talking.

That photograph, of grandma and her sisters, led to a city-wide millennial project (“Faces of San Diego”), numerous photographic exhibitions, a book by the same name, and a nationwide National Endowment for the Humanities grant to collect family photographs nationwide.

Literally, thousands of photographs and their ghosts were resurrected and shared.

As an African proverb warns us, “When an old man dies a whole library burns to the ground.”

Everyone who has a photograph possesses that library. A library full of ghosts wanting to be brought back to life.

Do it this Christmas. Bring out that photograph. Introduce those ghosts. And cherish the adventure that unfolds.

Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor

Show comments