Our Tales UnTold ran a contest for our readers to submit photographs and their associated stories for the chance to win a free video montage. Little did I know that the winner and I would share so much in common: Originally from Abington, PA, Sharon Broomall‘s son and mine attended the same high school. We both earn our living as writers. Sharon shared a 1973 photograph of her grandfather blowing out his birthday candles with the help of his grandchildren. It’s a great picture, isn’t it? But the story behind the picture is even better.
Sharon has made her living as a writer and editor for more than two decades, covering a wide range of topics including professional boxing, the Miss America pageant, and U.S. Army weapon systems. She writes, “My true passions are writing fiction and photographing the natural world. As I writer, I appreciate every photograph’s ability to speak without words.” We believe that, too!
Our Tales UnTold: Describe your winning photograph. Who is in it? What was the occasion? Where was it taken?
Sharon Broomall: This photo was taken on April 6, 1973, my grandfather’s 68th birthday. My cousins Cindy and Rick; my brother, Scott; my sister, Susan; and I were helping him blow out his birthday candles at the house on Rosemont Lane in Abington, PA, where he and my grandmom lived most of their lives. I was only four when this photo was taken, so I don’t know the full story behind it, but the emotions it conjures are as vivid as if it were taken yesterday and as if I knew the thoughts in the heads of everyone pictured.
My grandpop had terrible asthma his entire life — so bad that it kept him from serving in World War II — but I never heard him complain about it or even discuss it. He probably used his asthma as an excuse to gather all of us grandkids around him to supply the wind power to blow out that single candle. Grandpop, a salesman by trade, was a comedian at heart, and you can see that on his face and on our faces, with the hokey “blowing out candles” poses. Grandpop always introduced Grandmom as “my daughter, Ethel,” to make her feel young and to make everyone laugh. Every visit to their house started with at least one joke, usually several. Whenever we visited, if I knocked on the door first, I was greeted with, “Hello, Carol, Joyce, Ethel, Louise, Cindy, Susan … Sharon!” He ran through every female name in our family before he got to mine just to make me crack up. He did this with every family member.
Looking at the photo, I know that Grandpop didn’t really need us to help him blow out the candle; he did it because he loved to include us, and both he and Grandmom had a unique way of making each of us feel special and loved. That’s what this photo reminds me of — that feeling of inclusiveness and belonging that is irreplaceable and that helped each one of us grow up to be kind, giving, and cheerful people and to raise our own children to be the same way — to laugh whenever possible, to reach out to others, and to make those on the outside feel part of the group.
OTuT: Why is this photograph important to you?
SB: The photo brings back memories of the many years of fun times we had with our cousins and the warmth, love, and generosity that our grandparents showed for each one of us. We were lucky enough to have our cousins living only 15 minutes away from birth through young adulthood, and both sets of grandparents only 5-10 minutes away. We were as close with our cousins growing up as we were with our siblings. That was a true blessing.
OTuT: How did you come by this picture?
SB: My father took up genealogy about 15 years ago and over a period of several years placed nearly every family photo ever taken, in any form, on DVDs, fully indexed with names, locations, and dates. A few years ago, he gave all of our immediate family members copies of his catalog. I am so grateful for this detailed index of our family history. I have images from so many occasions and simply everyday life at my fingertips because of my dad’s meticulous work.
OTuT: Who does this photograph remind you of? Why?
SB: It reminds me of the many Sunday dinners we had at our grandparents’ house, especially the Palm Sunday dinners. After Palm Sunday dinner, I remember watching the Wizard of Oz every year. (Why that movie was shown at Eastertime, I’m not sure.)
OTuT: If you could ask questions of the person/people in the photo, what would you ask? Why?
SB: I would ask Grandpop how he and Grandmom stayed married — and truly in love — for 60-plus years. They were one of those couples who never fought, never had a cross word for one another. They had an incredibly strong marriage and true devotion to each other. I am still in awe of that.
OTuT: We asked Sharon to place her photograph in front of her and free write for 15 minutes to discover thoughts and feelings about her photo. Her story warms the heart!
SB: One of the other things I love about this photo is that, in the background, I see things that are now in my house — the plate on the wall from Spain, the china cabinet, and some of the items in the china cabinet. I love that sense of history because it reminds me of where I came from. My grandparents were world travelers. They lived frugally through all of their working lives, and after my grandfather retired from the family business, they spent their retirement traveling — to Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, around the U.S. Many things in my home are items they collected during their travels. I love that I inherited that sense of wanderlust from Grandpop and Grandmom (and from my dad, their son). I also love that although they may have been a typical middle-class suburban couple, they had a curiosity about the world that led them to want to see it and experience it.
One of the highlights of our years growing up near their home was the vacation slide shows they would put on whenever they had recently returned from a trip. My grandpop would set up the movie screen and slide projector (I still remember the scent of warm, burning dust from the projector bulb — I love that smell), and my grandmom would put snacks in bowls and on trays, and they would share their travels with us. There was always the obligatory, “Here I am cleaning the toilet before we left for our trip” and, at the end of the show, “Here I am cleaning the toilet when we returned” — my grandfather’s comedic side showing. After the slide show, my grandmother would play some tunes on her piano, her delicate hands dancing across the tinkling keys. My son, Michael, plays the piano, and whenever he practices I think of Grandmom. Again, I get that sense of history, of things coming full circle. Although our families change and grow, and although the times have changed completely, somehow we are always part of where we came from.
OTuT: Sharon’s profound thought bears repeating, “Although our families change and grow, and although the times have changed completely, somehow we are always part of where we came from.” What images and memories rose to the surface of your consciousness as you read Sharon’s remembrances? Share in the comments below.
About Sharon Broomall: She grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1970s and ’80s. Her first novel, “Night Swimming,” based on summers spent at the Jersey shore, won second prize in the Maryland Writers’ Association‘s 2008 Novel Contest. She self-published my second novel, “Gabby Gibson: Middle School Detective” in 2014 and am writing the sequel while working as a Department of Defense technical writer. You can learn more about her books and nature photography by visiting her websites: sharonbroomallphotographer.com and bluestonemediapublishing.com.