Why I tracked down the owner of a dusty cardboard box

Before parenthood stole reassigned a lot of our free time, we enjoyed going to auctions and estate sales. You never know what you’ll find there, and the mystery made it pretty thrilling. 

During one of our Friday nights at the auction, we purchased a large box of picture frames. We’d just moved into our then 100-year-old home and I wanted to start decorating. This was a perfect find.

I picked out some of the frames and filled them with prints of baby-faced newlyweds. At the time, I noticed the frames had another family’s photos in them. But admittedly, I didn’t think anything of it.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I rediscovered those frames, as well as the photographs they held. No longer as desperate for the decorations, I took a moment to study the pictures. They were old, many of them forever bonded to their cardboard backings. Some were black and white, others vibrant. There were family portraits, candid moments between a mother and her child, wedding photographs, and embarrassing captures.

As I sifted through the pictures, I realized that these strangers were real.

And, they were probably still out there somewhere. The beautiful woman with blond curls probably watched her sons move out decades ago, and may be longing for memories of their baby teeth and messy faces.

The brothers in the photographs, now in their 40s or 50s, may have families of their own. I wondered if there was a new generation on this family tree who would love to laugh at those bellbottoms and huge glasses.

So, I began searching.

Something you should know me about me if you don’t already – I’m obsessed with true crime. I soak up every Dateline episode with fervor, have a revolving door of crime podcasts on my phone, and would do an escape game every day of my life if I could.

As determined as I was to find the owner of these pictures, I have to admit it wasn’t easy. The name scribbled on the back of the images was “Matt Smith.

Do you know how many Matt Smiths there are in the United States?


Of course, I do love a challenge.

With a little help from my friends (Google, Facebook, and court record databases), I located him. And wouldn’t you know it, he lived nearby.

This past weekend, I met up with Matt and gave him his family pictures. As it turns out, his parents are no longer around to share in the stories he’ll remember as he sorts through the photographs. I can only imagine the warmth those dozens of images will bring.

Today, we can print off hundreds of copies of a single photograph. We can easily press a few buttons and reminisce about vacations gone by. Our family members’ photos appear when they call our cell phones, and we can make instant connections with the click of a mouse.

I’m not trying to say that our technology is bad.

After all, I make a living as a result of it. But, I am suggesting that maybe it’s lessened the degree to which we interact with others and cherish those unique bonds.

See, I didn’t know Matt before. And maybe I won’t ever speak to him again. But, the overwhelming feeling of joy and pride I experienced when I handed off those pictures was inexplicable. His smile was contagious. It was swelling. It was so, so rewarding. Because it was real.

And, it was a reminder that there are billions of people in the world we will never have the pleasure of meeting.

However, if we allow ourselves to look for them, we may find connections where we least expect them.

What’s one tangible thing you’d hope someone would return if you lost it, even if you never knew it was missing?

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