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The Legend of Aunt Cassandra

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Cassandra Wilke was my great-great-great-great-great aunt, an extraordinary tourist, and according to family lore, a time traveler. This last part was a family joke, sprung from her vast collection of photos that has passed down the generations and is currently in my mother’s attic. It’s an amazing piece of history by itself; there are dozens of photos of famous people and events. In college I was fascinated with turn-of-the-century American history, so I attempted to put the whole collection in order for my grandmother. Unfortunately, not all the photos are labeled or dated. Still, I was able to track down about half. According to my new ordering, the photos spanned from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago to a photo of Amelia Earhart with “December 1931” pencilled on the back. In between are over three hundred photos, each of them featuring the smiling face of my Aunt Cassandra.

I spent nearly a year trying to source the unlabeled photos, with very little success. I suspected that these people were famous because that seemed to be a theme with Cassandra, but I simply didn’t have anywhere to start. A physicist friend of mine found Einstein (he didn’t have the mustache!) and Curie, and the university librarian found Prokofiev, Helen Keller, and a few others. That still left over a hundred unidentified people. Here she was with an American Indian chief. Here she was laughing with a group of women in a restaurant. This one’s almost falling apart, but you can see her standing next to a handsome black man in a tuxedo; his arm is around her, which is very interesting to me considering the age of the photograph. The sheer variety of people in these photos made me start to like this Cassandra Wilke; I was proud we were related.

According to my grandmother, the “time traveler” joke came from two things: good genes and poor fashion. Not counting the photos I couldn’t identify, the collection spans nearly forty years. And yet, all the Cassandras were pretty much interchangeable. Obviously it’s hard to tell in old photos, but the hair stayed dark and the face remained unlined. She didn’t even change her style much over the years; she nearly always wore a long light-colored dress and tiny square spectacles. And thus was born the legend: Cassandra the Time Traveler.

Jokes aside, however, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking–or rather trying to avoid thinking–that there’s more to the story. It’s too strange a thought to share with my family, but I have had some experiences that make me question the standard family history. It’s been years since I last flipped through those photos, but I have the feeling that if I did so today, I would recognize a lot more faces. The thing is, I don’t study history anymore; I’m in media now. I don’t know any more about the 30’s than I did ten years ago, but I know a lot more about the present. I know that occasionally a face on TV or in a newspaper looks oddly familiar. I know it was strange to see Barack Obama in color and without a tuxedo. And I know, above all, that all of this is completely impossible. And that’s why I don’t talk about it.

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