City Lights: Five generations in a photo

I remember my great-grandmother a little. She was nearly 100 when I saw her in the nursing home, and my mind retains a sketchy image of a white-haired woman who remained seated and stared bemused at the G.I. Joe toy that I brought to show her.

I was 7 or 8 then, and I'm sure I had a vague understanding that my great-grandmother had once been as young as me, and that someday, with luck, I would live to be her age. At the time, though, the concept didn't seem quite real. It was only years later, reading about her and seeing her pictures in our family history album, that I filled the spaces in between: her arrival in California as a teenager, the births of her children, her years running a turkey ranch.

In their classic song "Bookends," Simon and Garfunkel muse briefly about the passage of time and then give a quiet urging to the listener: "Long ago it must be / I have a photograph / Preserve your memories / They're all that's left you."

I am blessed to have the photographs I do. And so is Connie Schopp, a Huntington Beach resident who works as a nurse in Newport Beach and recently posed for a picture that encompasses nearly a century of family history.

A couple of weeks back, Schopp joined her son, twin granddaughters, mother and grandfather for a five-generation family portrait. Twenty-four years ago, she appeared in a similar portrait — this one with her young sons, mother, grandfather and great-grandfather.

And back in 1957, her family did the same thing — this time with Schopp as the newborn, and her mother, grandfather, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother comprising the older four generations.

Schopp isn't sure if her family was simply blessed with resilient genes. But whatever the reason, generation after generation has proven to have a knack for living nearly to 100.

"To me, it just represents that I've had a large amount of love from that family," Schopp told me when I visited her home the other week. "It just gives you a sense of who you are and where you come from."

In her living room, we looked at a photocopy of the old Torrance Herald article where the first group portrait appeared in 1957. Schopp's great-grandmother's sister knew a staff member at the paper, and she arranged to have a photographer stop by. Most vivid in the picture are the infant Schopp and her mother, who wear white and sit slightly right of center; her grandfather, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother occupy the edges in darker colors.

I asked what memories Schopp had of her great-great-grandmother, Minnie, who appears grainy in the photograph and peers at her through glasses. Schopp, beady-eyed and arm raised, seems to regard the old woman back from her mother's lap.

The brief story in the Herald gives a scant biography of Minnie: her age, her address, the fact that she moved to Torrance in 1947 to be with her children after her husband died in West Virginia. By the time Schopp visited her in the nursing home, her body and faculties had diminished quite a bit.

"I remember asking my mother, 'Why would that grown woman have baby dolls?'" Schopp said. "I didn't realize people became more childlike as they aged."

As we went from person to person in the photos, more life stories emerged: great-grandmother Irene, who worked as a nurse and raised three sons on her own; grandfather Louis, who served in World War II, met his wife while playing guitar in a band and is 93 in the family's latest photo.

Then there was Schopp's son Steven, who barely stands taller than his mother's knee in the 1978 photo and appears in the latest one as a strapping, smiling man cradling one of his newborn daughters on his lap.

Looking at those old photos, I thought of an essay Roger Ebert wrote earlier this year on his blog in which he mused on his and others' mortality. At one point, he described a funeral slide show in which he spotted an uncle in a group photo and wondered if he was the only person in the room who had any memories of him.

"I think there's a chance I was the only person in the room who knew it was Uncle Ben in the second row," Ebert wrote. "There were probably a dozen who knew in general who the picture showed — ancestors on the mother's side — but does the name or an idea of Uncle Ben linger on earth outside my own mind? When I die, what will remain of him?"

True, most of our memories don't outlive us. But as Schopp said, preserving that family history shows where we come from. There, in that 1957 photo, she shares the scene with her great-grandmother — two nurses, three generations apart. As for my great-grandmother, our family history shows that she ran a magazine subscription business late in life. Maybe we could have used her at Times Community News.

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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