Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – May 2, 2004
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – May 2, 2004 – I have a square, silver dish sitting on the coffee table in my den. Some old black and white photographs are stacked in it as part of the room’s decor. I haven’t bothered to look at them in ages, but today for some unknown reason I picked them up and sifted through them.
I recognized three of the photos as relatives of mine. A sepia toned picture of my father’s mother – Estelle – is framed in a dappled brown cardboard holder. I have no idea how old she is, but I’d guess in her twenties. She’s wearing a pretty, low cut dress with fancy beading on the bodice and pleat work at the shoulders. She has a simple choker length chain, probably gold, around her neck.
Her thick hair is parted in the middle and pulled up in a chignon at the back of her head. Her face is tilted a bit to the side, one eye more in shadow than the other. She isn’t smiling, but a hint of amusement plays around her lips. Her skin looks clear and fresh and from the picture she appears to have a full, healthy women’s figure.
I tried to see my father in her picture but without much success, so I went to the den to retrieve a picture of him as a young man. He was quite handsome. Now I can see the same dark, thick hair, high forehead and curve to the eyebrows. His face was longer and thinner – hers fuller at the jaw line. Her mouth was more generous, their noses both straight and well shaped. His picture was serious, missing the glimmer of amusement evident in hers. He faced the photographer straight on, his eyes found the lens of the camera, not shying away. Already, his hair was worn in the same style that he kept all his life – combed straight back off his forehead.
I knew and loved my father. I never met my grandmother. She died of breast cancer while my father was overseas during the war – I think 1943 or 1944. He missed her funeral for obvious reasons. I wonder about them. He was an only child – unusual in the 1920’s. Did they get along? Was she protective, loving, supportive and proud of her only son? Did she have dreams for him that he didn’t share? Was she funny? How did she feel when he left for England to fight for his country?
Did she worry about him at night when she lay in her bed? Did she write to him? When she realized she was dying, did she mourn the fact that she would never see her son again? Did she love my grandfather? Was it a marriage of passion or conformity. Did she want more children? Did she live any of her dreams or did she simply settle for what was expected of her? I’ll never know. No one is alive who can shed any light on my grandmother’s short life.
I don’t feel anything looking at her picture, but still, I wish I’d known her. This woman who is responsible, in part for who I am. The only things I heard about Estelle were from my mother. She described her as a cool, detached woman not given to much laughter, and intent on maintaining her position it the community. However, I’m well aware that this information is from the perspective of her daughter-in-law.
Upon reflection – I realize that my father never talked much about his mother. I try to imagine how my father felt around her. As a boy did he call her Mummy? Was she formal, preferring Mother? For some unknown reason I think she did. I wonder if he knew for certain that he was loved? The story of her life is forgotten now – her hopes and dreams forever a mystery. Except for today as I sit looking at her picture and wondering about her life. When I’m gone, perhaps her picture will survive and someone, sometime, somewhere, will pick up her photograph in an antique shop and wonder about the serious, young woman in the beaded dress.
Another of the photos is of Sam Dunham, the father of my mother’s cousin Marjorie, and the source of my brother Mike’s middle name – “Dunham”.The bottom right of the photo simply says McDonald – Wiarton. Sam’s picture is in a book style photo holder with a crinkled sheet of opaque paper over the actual picture. The outside of the putty coloured booklet has embossed flowers in the centre – quite fancy. On the inside, Sam’s portrait is centred in an oval frame. He is young with thick, curly hair, a finely shaped mouth and a serious demeanour.
His shirt collar is a starched, ring neck one and he’s sporting a striped tie and dark suit jacket. It’s apparent that a ‘smiling’ portrait wasn’t usual in those days. Of course, there is never a date on old pictures, so I’‘m left to imagine the time and circumstances of the trip to the photographer’s studio. I know Sam was a favourite of his mother, so I’m guessing this was taken for the family home before he was married. I imagine it sitting on a table in the living room or on the fireplace mantle, where his mother would casually say, “Yes that’s my boy Sam – he’s handsome, don’t you think?”.
I remember when he was an elderly man, he lived in Wiarton, in a neat little, bungalow clad in green wood siding, close to the main street. I recall daffodils and tulips in the two trim beds that lined the walk-way to the front door. As a child I knew Uncle Sam as a serious, not overly demonstrative, but gentle man. He didn’t put the fear of the Lord into children and I remember having salmon sandwiches in his kitchen and being encourage to finish my glass of milk. Sam died when I was about eight years old and with him, all the stories of his life.
A third picture is of two small girls and their feisty looking little Cocker Spaniel. It was taken by Oliver in Lindsay. On the back, in my father’s handwriting is the note “Will McLure’s daughters – Kathleen and Robin”. The picture is sweet and simple. Both curly-headed girls are dressed in white. These are relatives from my father’s side of the family, but other than that I have no idea about their life stories or where and when they lived.
I have a stack of other old photographs. I don’t know any of the people, and now I can’t remember where I got the pictures, probably at a Sunday afternoon flea market, or while puttering about in an antique store. Some are portraits, all of them serious, others are group shots taken at cottages or in front of homes, with the owners (I’m assuming), beaming with pride. There is a terrific picture of two men, a dog and a horse that is harnessed for work. All are standing in front of a makeshift tee-pee that is covered with pieces of tarp and the boughs of an evergreen tree – short and needled – perhaps spruce.
It was taken by a photographer named Higgins, also from Wiarton. I can’t imagine what these men did, but I wonder about fishing. There is only one horse, not a team, so logging or farming don’t come to mind. It’s obvious that the animals were meant to be a prominent part of the picture, as they are front and centre. I wonder who these men are and how events shaped their lives and touched their hearts.
Another wonderful little photograph, only about an inch and a quarter square features three long-haired kittens with ribbons around their necks. In the same amateurishly made frame, there is another picture, of what looks like a cottage, by a lake or river. I imagine this little treasure propped up against a pile of books on a bedside table, a memento of treasured pets and a special place.
The last photo is of a young man from Mount Forest. He’s standing with one hand on his hip and the other holding, what looks like a riding crop. He has on an elaborate white shirt with the cuffs turned back over his jacket sleeves and a huge white collar that covers the top of his jacket. A tie is tucked into the top of breeches, that are tucked into shiny, black knee-high boots. A hat with a wide brim sits on the back of his head. I can’t figure out if he imagines himself a cowboy or a country squire, although I’m thinking the latter.
What a treasure these old pictures are. All these years later, they speak about the people who posed for them. A snapshot in time, memories created and lives hopefully well-lived. The next time you’re trying to think of a special gift for a family member or close friend, create a picture album of important times and events in their lives and then label and date the photographs.
Some time in the future other people will be looking at the album and will understand the significance of the pictures, the cherished people in them and they will appreciate the fond memories that live on in the photographs.