Hand-Me-Downs

By J. L. Starkey

And one day you may look at us and say that you were cursed

But over time that line has been extremely well rehearsed

By our fathers, and their fathers in some old and distant town

From places no one here remembers come the things we’ve handed down

Marc Cohn

My list of favorite finds is a long one, and that was a problem this week, thanks to Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

There was the time I found the article about my third-great-grandparents’ Deadwood divorce and woke my husband at 4:00 am (on a Saturday, no less) to whisper-yell, “It’s him! The stagecoach maniac is Conrad!”

Then there was the time my DNA results led straight to my “English” great-great-grandmother’s 100% Irish family, and shook the very foundation of my maternal line.

Or how about the time I found the photo of Mary Pickford and my Gram at that War Bond rally?

As I thought about this week’s topic, I realized that my favorite finds make me wake my husband at 4:00 am, or call my mom because “I have to tell you…” or message my sister, “You’re not gonna believe this!” How could I choose just one to write about?

As I narrowed down the list, my son interrupted my musings to inform me that he was out of contact lens solution. Again.

It’s a common occurrence. He’s been wearing glasses since he was a toddler, and he switched to contacts a few weeks after his tenth birthday. His uncorrected vision is so bad, in fact, that his contacts are considered “medically necessary,” and are provided free of charge, thanks to our insurance policy.

What can I say? It’s the family curse, and my son probably inherited it from – oh wait…

That was an amazing find. And it may have never happened, had it not been for the 2020 Covid lockdown, a stressful day in June, and the generosity of MyHeritage.

Be careful with those free trials, my friends. They could rewrite your family history, too.


#ColorBeatsCoronavirusBlues

In June 2020, as the Covid lockdown dragged on, MyHeritage was a bright spot in an uncertain world. First, they offered free access to My Heritage in Color and encouraged users to enter the #ColorBeatsCoronavirusBlues photo competition. Next, they asked users to try the MyHeritage Photo Enhancer. Once again, access was free.

Granted, these tools are not without some controversy. Some critics feel that colorizing antique photos is in poor taste because it “obscures” history, rather than enhancing it. While I certainly understand those concerns, I decided to give the tools a try on a few family photos. I wasn’t trying to obscure anything, and maybe I would even discover something.

The mid-1880s portrait of my great-great-grandfather William Baugh was an obvious choice for enhancement. Come on…how could it not be? From his fashionable hat to his snazzy shoes, Willie was stylin’ and profilin’!

William Baugh, ca. 1887 [Family photo collection]

Even if I didn’t discover anything, restoring a few photos might distract from [gestures to the world in 2020] all of this, I told myself. After all, we had stayed home for months, our vacation plans were ruined, and even our medical appointments had been delayed…including that follow-up with my son’s eye specialist.

I’d have done just about anything to ease that particular worry.


The Genetic Lottery

From the time he was 22 months old in 2008, my son has been under a specialist’s care for the treatment of accommodative esotropia and amblyopia, better known as lazy eye. By 2020, his list of diagnoses had grown to include pediatric ocular hypertension and potential early-onset glaucoma.

My maternal line is chock-full of genetic eye problems, so these issues were not unexpected. My mother, aunt, sister, two nephews (or is it three?), and even one great-niece share some (or all) of my son’s diagnoses.

But not unexpected doesn’t equate to not scary. Left untreated, lazy eye can lead to loss of depth perception, double vision, and even blindness [1]. It is expensive and tedious to treat, and nasty remarks or jokes certainly don’t help the situation. (Administrators at my son’s old school once designated a “nerd day” during spirit week. Several teachers and students wore “coke-bottle” glasses with tape on them and laughed at the hilarity of it all. Oh, how misinformed and cruel some people can be.)

In my son’s case, “aggressive” patching and coke-bottle glasses that were so thick they could start fires literally saved his eyesight. Today, his vision is correctable to 20/20 (a rarity with his form of amblyopia), and thanks to those pricey contacts, he also has some degree of depth perception.

Still, those early years were a blur as we seemed to do nothing else but keep that dreaded patch on his eye “all day – every day.” We had patch games, patch toys, and patch songs, but the days were long and frustrating. I once recorded a video of my son as he surreptitiously removed his patch, stuck it to the hardwood floor, covered it with toys, and then triumphantly yelled, “All done patch time!” (It’s hilarious now, sure. Back then? Not so much.)

Later, we decoupaged a trinket box with eye patches, and today that box holds his old glasses. It’s a quirky memento of a challenging – but ultimately successful – time.

Mission accomplished! Trinket box decoupaged with eye patches [Family photo collection]

Through it all, my mom was a constant source of support. This was familiar territory for her, since she had experience as both a patch kid and a patch parent. I jokingly asked which of her ancestors we could blame for our family’s eye issues but didn’t expect an answer to that question. Given the scarcity of pre-1900s photos, how could anyone find something like that?

Which brings me back to…


That unforgettable June day

I uploaded the photo of “Grampa” Baugh to MyHeritage on that stressful June day, grateful for the chance to focus on something other than all of the other somethings that were worrying me.

So…did the “best technology in the world” (according to MyHeritage, anyway) uncover anything new or surprising?

Did it ever.

The results made me contact my sisters and my mother. If it had been 4:00 am, I’d have woken my husband. Because on my list of favorite finds, this one was legendary. There, in the enhanced photo, was an answer that I never expected to find.

Who was “to blame” for my family’s eye issues? That honor, it seems, may have belonged to one William Everett Baugh.

Hidden details revealed?

It didn’t matter that the results were a bit blurry. I would have recognized that inward turn of William’s left eye anywhere.

After all, I had seen it plenty of times before.

Enhancement close-up of William’s eyes [Family photo collection]
The eyes of William’s descendant [Family photo collection]


Was Willie to blame?

The finished product: William Everett Baugh, ca. 1887

Given the age and condition of the original photo, the clarity in the finished product was nothing short of remarkable, and hinted that the Baugh family had been losing the genetic vision lottery for over 150 years. But was it an accurate restoration, or had history been skewed?

William’s eye doctor may have actually been a jeweler [Newspapers.com]

Details from William’s paper trail indicate that the restored photo is probably accurate. Sadly, if he did have a lazy eye, it probably resulted in that worst-case scenario that had so worried me when my son was a toddler.

If William was treated for lazy eye, that care probably came from a watchmaker who doubled as an optician and sold glasses for around 25 cents per pair [2]. He may have also been seen by a visiting doctor who worked out of a local hotel and treated everything from bronchitis to crossed eyes [3].

William may have been treated by a visiting physician like Dr. Jones [Newspapers.com]

The lack of effective treatment meant that William was almost certainly blind in his left eye, which explains why he never served in the military. I’ve often wondered why he didn’t enlist, given his family’s history of service. Perhaps William’s “decision” wasn’t a choice at all.

William Baugh’s final grades in 1878 [Newspapers.com]

William’s vision issues may also explain a shocking disparity in his grades [4]. How did he complete the 1878 school year with an F (64%) in reading, but an A (92%) in spelling? Given the way exams were probably administered, that discrepancy makes sense. If he was unable to read words on a blackboard or in a textbook, William may have compensated by memorizing things for oral exams in subjects such as spelling.

Still, the question remains. Is the restored photo accurate? If it is, then who else inherited these vision issues? Perhaps William’s siblings, or maybe his children? What about his grandchildren?

It’s funny where we find answers sometimes. I recently commissioned The Photo Alchemist to restore a few photos of William’s descendants. I expected the photos to turn out beautifully, and they absolutely did. But I never expected the photos to answer a question.

Who else, you ask?

I found the answer in my Favorite Photo. You can learn more about by clicking here!


Citations

  1. Troy Bedinghaus, O. D. (2021, October 3). Esotropia Causes, Types, and Complications. Verywell Health. Retrieved 10 Jan 2022 from https://www.verywellhealth.com/esotropia-crossing-of-the-eyes-3421583.
  2. “Spectacles, Eye-Glasses, & c.,” Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 21 Jul 1879, p. 4, col. 4. Retrieved 13 Jan 2022 from newspapers.com.
  3. “Professional Cards,” Richmond Dispatch, 15 Mar 1876, p. 2, col. 4. Retrieved 13 Jan 2022 from newspapers.com.
  4. “The Public Schools,” Richmond Dispatch, 8 Jun 1878, p. 1, col. 4-5. Retrieved 14 Jan 2022 from newspapers.com.

10 thoughts on “Hand-Me-Downs

Add yours

    1. I wish I knew more about William Baugh. My gram kept a diary which probably contained lots of details, but it was burned after her death. My great-aunt said that was the “proper” way to do things. I wish she hadn’t done that.

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  1. Great story! Everyone will need to look more closely at old photographs. My husband’s ancestor was a mathematical instrument maker, mainly for the marine trade. However, in some censuses, he is recorded as an optician. I think he probably made reading glasses alongside his sophisticated navigational instruments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m looking to see if any of those optician records are available, but so far haven’t found anything.
      My gram kept a diary, and I often wonder if any details of her Baugh relatives were in there. Unfortunately, the diary was burned after her death. My great-aunt said that is what one does with those sorts of things, but I sure wish she hadn’t done it!

      Liked by 1 person

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