Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Power of the Net: "My Grandma's Hands" & the Story Behind It!

The month before my Grandmother died, I visited her in Missouri along with my mother, sister, niece and her new baby girl. My Grandma Pete was 93, tired and getting weak. In her own words, she was ready to go to God. We knew her days with us were coming to an end, and we wanted her to have the joy of seeing her first Great-Great Grandchild.

As the designated family photographer for the trip, I took a portrait of the five "women" -- all with smiling faces -- to commemorate the special occasion so many generations coming together. I asked them to let me follow it up with a more artsy shot of just their hands.
This was met with some playful mock resistance (including "no notice given for manicures") but they were all game and eventually caved in to my "artistic demands." The idea for the composition had been suggested by a sales rep at Precision Camera where I shopped before our trip, and I wanted to give it a try.

It took some effort by everyone to capture the shot we wanted. My Grandmother was not very mobile so we worked around her seated position in her recliner. A couple of yards of black fabric from the local Wal-Mart draped over her lap and served as our backdrop. Then we set up everyone else. I stood on a kitchen chair and focused down while the "younger generations" (73, 51, & 27) leaned back as far as they could manage and still keep their hands (and the baby's) in the photo.

We made several adjustments to the hands before deciding on a chronological age arrangement that just seemed right. The photograph features the hands of my Grandma, Mom, Sister, Niece & Great Niece with each gently touching the next. Pleased with the result and proud to play a role in capturing our family's history, I named this special photograph: The Hands of Time.

We had hoped to run the photo, along with the traditional 5 generation portrait, in the local newspaper where Grandmother lived in Missouri. Unfortunately, we were not able to do this before she passed away just a month after our visit.

A little over a year later, my cousin emailed me an inspirational piece of writing "Grandma's Hands" commenting that it reminded her of my photo. The "unknown author" wrote of her 90-year old Grandma and the hardships of her life (many which paralleled my grandmother's) and how it will be these hands that "reach out and touch the face of God." This was just as my Grandmother fervently believed before she passed.
It seemed as if that photo was taken to go with the writing. I immediately copied the poem, inserted my photo and emailed it out to family & friends, and the staff at the elementary school where I work.

The Hands of Time
5 Generation Photo by
Pamela McFarland Walsh

by Melinda Clements

Grandma, some ninety plus years, sat feebly on the patio bench. She didn't move, just sat with her head down staring at her hands.

When I sat down beside her she didn't acknowledge my presence and the longer I sat I wondered if she was OK.

Finally, not really wanting to disturb her but wanting to check on her at the same time, I asked her if she was OK. She raised her head and looked at me and smiled. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you for asking," she said in a clear voice strong.

"I didn't mean to disturb you, Grandma, but you were just sitting here staring at your hands and I wanted to make sure you were OK," I explained to her.

"Have you ever looked at your hands?" she asked. "I mean really looked at your hands?"

I slowly opened my hands and stared down at them. I turned them over, palms up and then palms down. No, I guess I had never really looked at my hands as I tried to figure out the point she was making.

Grandma smiled and related this story:

"Stop and think for a moment about the hands you have, how they have served you well throughout your years. These hands, though wrinkled shriveled and weak have been the tools I have used all my life to reach out and grab and embrace life.

They braced and caught my fall when as a toddler I crashed upon the floor.

They put food in my mouth and clothes on my back. As a child, my mother taught me to fold them in prayer. They tied my shoes and pulled on my boots. They held my husband and wiped my tears when he went off to serve our country in time of war.

They have been dirty, scraped and raw, swollen and bent. They were uneasy and clumsy when I tried to hold my newborn son. The left hand is decorated with my wedding band they showed the world that I was married and loved someone special.

They wrote my letters to him and trembled and shook when I buried my parents and my spouse.

They have held my children and grandchildren, consoled neighbors, and shook in fists of anger when I didn't understand.

They have covered my face, combed my hair, and washed and cleansed the rest of my body. They have been sticky and wet, bent and broken, dried and raw. And to this day when not much of anything else of me works real well, but these hands hold me up, lay me down, and again continue to fold in prayer.

These hands are the mark of where I've been and the ruggedness of life.

But more importantly it will be these hands that God will reach out and take when he leads me home. And with my hands He will lift me to His side and there I will use these hands to touch His Face."

I will never look at my hands the same again. But I remember God reached out and took my Grandma's hands and led her home.

When my hands are hurt or sore or when I stroke the face of my children and husband I think of Grandma. I know she has been stroked and caressed and held by the Hands of God.

* * * * *
This piece was originally published as "Grandpa's Hands," copyright 2004. The revised version above is posted with the permission of the author. To contact Melinda, visit her website or click to email her directly: Melinda Clements.

* * * * *

"And Now," as Paul Harvey would say, "the REST of the Story!"

A few months after that email, one of the teachers I work with stopped me in the hallway and asked, "Wasn't it you who took that photo of the hands?" She said she was sure that she'd seen my picture in an email from a friend. I replied that it probably wasn't mine, someone else must have taken a similar pose, and promptly dismissed it.

A month or two later, my sister (whose hand is IN the photo) received an email from a good friend out in West Texas. It was a forward of a forward of a forwarded email with this message: "Just look at the picture a good while, and then read the rest. It will touch you." Lo & behold, if it wasn't the photo & the poem as I had sent it out. Ironically, her friend had no idea that it was Gayle's hand and family depicted. When Gayle told her, she said "Well, I thought that ring looked familiar."

I studied the chain of forwarded emails and recipients convinced I would find some link to explain it all, but was unable to do so despite the many addresses it contained. We got a big chuckle out of the whole thing and remarked about the power of the internet. Little did we know.

Fast forward to this past weekend ... Looking through a folder that I've kept for many years ~ a file of "keepers" containing inspirational pieces, poems, motivational articles and quotes ~ I decided to start posting some of these favorites on a new blog. Since I consider these to be written gems, I've named this blog "Retold Gold," a nod to the fact that they aren't first run editions.

Now, I have always believed it is important to credit work. As such, I decided that I'll always make a sincere effort to find out who authored a piece before posting it here, even if it comes to me as "Unknown Author." Sadly, this is one of the pitfalls of the internet; people frequently leave off the author's name when they copy, paste and share. On the flip side, the Internet makes it really easy to find the original source if it's somewhere "out there." Just by googling a line from a piece of writing (with quote marks around the phrase) it's possible to find multiple sites that have it posted, and often the author's name as well.

WHICH brings me back to the photo. Following the first item on this blog
(which ironically focuses on the importance of crediting work) I decided to post "Grandma's Hands" along with the photo I took as I had originally sent it out last fall. But, I didn't have the author's name. In keeping with my intention to always give credit whenever possible, I quickly googled a phrase from the piece.

Well, I found what I was looking for. And more! Not only did the writing appear on numerous sites, I found it posted many times with my"Hands of Time" photo attached. From the National Call to Prayer website to over 25 different blogs across the country, this photo and poem have appeared together.
People have posted reflections on their own grandparents and being prompted to take similar pictures. People write about its origins: "this widely circulated email" that "I'm sure you've seen before." And some sites post it with the original words I included:
I was privileged to take a photo of 'Five Generations of Women' shortly before my 93 year-old Grandmother passed away last year. The photo, shown below, features the hands of my Grandmother, Mom, Sister, Niece and Great-Niece. While I can't take credit for the idea, I was so happy to have had the suggestion & capture this moment. It inspired a friend of mine to do something similar which turned out so beautiful and a special keepsake prior to her father's passing.
I have found it posted on the photo sharing sites Photobucket and FLICKR with a challenge to go take one like it. I have seen my image used as someone's desktop wallpaper. I have seen it edited with the hands placed onto a different background. I even found someone who posted it claiming that SHE took the photo, and then was having other people rate it! (I suppose the good news is that it had received 10 out of 10 stars on all ratings.)

Almost everyone has posted it as author (and obviously photographer) unknown with acknowledgment for its inspiration to them. For this I am grateful. After a bit of searching, I was able to determine who authored the piece, and I contacted her directly. Melinda Clements originally wrote it as Grandpa's Hands, copyright 2004. When I shared my discovery with her, she said, "Oh, I've seen your photo before." We have enjoyed a newfound friendship and connection. Unknowingly and without intention, we have become forever entwined by our respective works.

As I have journeyed through the land of internet anonymity, I've experienced first-hand the feelings of not be credited for my work.
I do understand that people can't ask -- or give credit to -- someone if they don't know who it is. But it's just an odd feeling, or should I say, a mixture of many: knowing it's so OUT there, knowing it's inspired people, knowing that no one knows it's mine, knowing that people have taken it and CHANGED it, knowing that people have claimed it as THEIR OWN.

Apart from my photo, I found one person who posted Melinda Clement's piece on his Christian website with HIS name, a supposed copyright along side it, and the incredulous message to "Feel free to copy and distribute this to everyone you know." As if its his to grant?! Like the woman who claimed my photo as hers, that completely boggles my mind.

So with renewed passion, I reiterate my founding guideline: W
henever possible, CREDIT work to the responsible CREATORS. This can start whenever you copy something down. Whether by pen or keyboard or Xerox machine, take the time to capture and include the author's name if it's there. If you can't do that, at least acknowledge that the work is someone else's, and certainly NEVER claim (or even give the impression) that it's yours when it's not.

The morning I discovered the widespread distribution of my photo, I sat anchored to my computer. Clicking link after link, I welled with emotion as I read the heartfelt comments of strangers describing the feelings it evoked in them. I am so deeply touched and honored that my photo, along with Melinda's words, has resonated with so many people. Truly I am. Yet at the same time, it felt strange realizing that people have been sharing and posting my family photo on such a large scale while I was completely unaware.

It is amazing, humbling and a bit bizarre all at the same time.

Pamela McFarland Walsh
The "Unknown" Photographer

UPDATE: Read more!

Voicethread is a unique place to share photos and comments. Featured below is the voicethread I created about this story, along with related photos. Click on the play button to view. You can make comments by logging in on their site. Click here to access this thread directly.


amcevoy1 said...

Thanks for posting the information about your photo and the owner of the poem. I do wish that people would always give credit where it is do. Your Photograph is beautiful. I am working a a project of hands for church and very ofen search for hand pictures on the web looking for ideas. But your picture came along with the poem. If you want to see me photos they are posted on my facebook page.
Ann McEvoy

Pamela said...

Thanks for your comment Ann, I love hearing from people who have received the photo. I would enjoy viewing your facebook page ... just made a friend request.

Take care,
Pamela Walsh

Josie Clayton said...


I read the first poem on a facebook page and, since it is really hard to copy and paste something from facebook, I retyped the poem in Word, as well as the comments below it. I was curious about who wrote the story and looked it all up on the internet, until I got to your story, telling how the story and the photo came about in the first place.

I am an older woman (I will be 60 in January of 2012) whose hands are starting to look a lot like my grandmother's and my mother's, but, until reading this, I have never thought, about all of the things my hands have done.

I, now, have Osteoarthritis, so they really aren't pretty hands, but then, again, after all the things my hands have been through, I guess I couldn't, really, expect them to be. I've always been very self-conscious about my hands, too, because I am a nail biter, and have been all of my life. I am looking at my hands in a new light, and even thinking about stopping the biting (which will not be easy... but, I have done it a couple of times before).

This is that inspirational and, I do agree that people should be honest and forthright enough to tell the truth about where they get the things they write about... whether it be an article, a poem or a story they tell.

In the poem I copied, there is no way I would ever think about taking credit for it, myself. It will have comments at the bottom, giving your name, as well as the original author, telling about who wrote the poem and who took the photo, both. I would love to frame this and put it somewhere, where anyone could see and be inspired, as I was. I really loved this, and believe it should be shared everywhere.

I am in the process of going to school for my Bachelor's Degree, after getting my Associate's Degree last year, in 2010. I would be graduating in June of next year, except I have had to take a session off for financing issues. Now (at least, if I can find the finances to fund the last two semesters), I should be graduating, maybe, in August or September of 2012. It is preached to us from day 1 about APA, plagiarism, and taking credit for work you have not done yourself, and not giving credit where credit is due. And, yet... the professors still have to remind some of the students, every time they write something. I may not be that great about the APA style of references, but, I do get the authors out there, one way or another.

I would, also, love to retype the story about "Grandpa's Hands", if I can find the actual original. I believe the two stories should be written, and posted, side-by-side, just the way Grandma and Grandpa, always were.

Thanks, again, for one of the most inspirational stories I have ever read.

Josie Clayton

Debby Magill said...

My grandmother passed away 3 years ago at age 100. I wrote her eulogy and shared your words of wisdom about "My Grandma's Hands", giving full credit, of course. Your words were so perfect for our grandmother and the many years of wisdom that she shared with all of us. I cannot express how much this meant to our family, and to Granny, as I'm quite sure she was aware of all that was said. I have often thought about your story and reread it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.