I somehow knew, even as a child, that more than a small part of how I experienced life was very much shaped by the past. Maybe part of it was because we didn't have TV until I was 16, or the way my grandfather insisted on doing things like it was mostly still 1954. My earliest views on the world were shaped by Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy as much as they were by the fact that it was the 1980s.
It was in the midst of cleaning out that house that I came across a picture that fundamentally shaped the way I thought about the past, and contributed somewhat directly to my becoming a historian.
"Hazel had several men who wanted to marry her," my grandmother informed me with a sigh. "But she never did, she just waited for that one to come back."
That was the absolute end of our talk about the matter. Several later attempts to pry for information led nowhere, and at the time I was too young to understand most of the implications. All I knew was that my great aunt Hazel died alone in her bed, having waited half a century for a man who never came home. If there was more to the story, my grandmother was careful to never share it, and by the time I was old enough to ask more questions, she was gone.
I started using the photograph in classes a few semesters ago as a way to convey to my students that individual human experiences are always at the heart of history, and that even when we discuss big topics like "World War II" we're really still talking about things that shaped the lives of ordinary people. I tell them what I know - that I have no idea who this guy is. Hazel would have been in her late teens during World War II, and the family lived about 30 miles south of San Francisco. It's conceivable she went there for a number of reasons, including volunteering for the Red Cross, which some other old papers in her things suggested she might have done. I don't know how well she knew this unnamed officer, but given the location it's likely he sailed for the Pacific Theater. Beyond that are a sea of possibilities. Maybe he was killed and she couldn't bear it. Maybe he went missing and she spent the next decades of her life hoping for an unlikely return. Maybe he did come back, but not to Hazel.
My students, inevitably, want answers, and realistically I could probably find them if I dug hard enough. But I'm not always sure that I want to. The unknowns in this story fit emotionally with the disconnect I always felt to Hazel, who rarely came to family dinners and who I'm not sure I ever heard speak a complete sentence. The mystery seems appropriate for the blank spaces I can't possibly hope to fill in for her life.