Archives for posts with tag: old photographs

Some stories are so sad and poignant that they’re still painful a century later. This beautiful little baby was my mom’s sister, Reva Vernell.

I don’t know when the picture was taken, but I found her birth date in an old Bible. She was born on November 24, 1914, so she was five years older than my mom. The date of her death was on another page, August 18, 1916. Her little life wasn’t even two years long, but here I am today in 2017, remembering an aunt I never knew, a sister my mom didn’t know. As was the rest of her family, Aunt Vernell was well loved all the same.

Though old and faded, this is one of my favorite pictures of my grandmother. Of course she was elderly when I knew her, but I’ve heard so many stories about her that it seems as if I was a part of her entire life. 

The one story that is absolutely haunting, though not in a supernatural sense, is that Grandmother said that after little Vernell died, it felt as if she still pulled at her skirts as she went about her household chores. It’s so vivid in my imagination (I almost typed “memory”)…the lovely little toddler, clinging to her pretty Edwardian mother’s skirt, wanting to be close to her always. I can also imagine that Grandmother must have gone to bed crying many nights, after her baby died. They never knew exactly what caused her death. She was in agony from stomach pain. It could have been appendicitis. There was even some thought that perhaps she swallowed a little peach pit. That was a time still in the early stages of medical diagnostics, which left many illnesses a mystery. That uncertainty must have made the loss even more unbearable. 

My grandparents had two more girls (Pearl and Sarah) and three boys (George, Billy, and Earl), but losing Vernell after too short a time surely left a sad, empty place in their family. And their hearts.

​I should know by now that something amazing may be encountered at any time. Shopping is a particular activity that provides opportunities for random fascinating conversations. Once, among the treasures of a Macy’s purse sale, a woman noticed my subtle Phantom of the Opera T-shirt and struck up a conversation about the musical, different versions, Michael Crawford, Broadway in general, and eventually my obsession with all things Wicked. Best Buy was host to a chance conversation with a young army veteran who worked there. We both enjoyed exchanging tales of foreign travel and historical landmarks so much that he would subsequently spot me across the store and come over to resume our conversation, as if it hadn’t been weeks since our last encounter. And a handicapped man at Walmart once told me about his sad, courageous life, obviously a very rare occurrence, spurred into an unfamiliar need for a sympathetic ear after a car almost ran him down in the parking lot. A simple shopping trip can lead to memories that become woven into the fabric of daily life.

Yesterday, I stumbled into a conversation with a sales girl at Pier 1, while lamp shopping. As random discussion will, it started simply, with my love of art glass. Eventually it wound around to some of the cool glass I’m finding among my mother’s things, from Depression Glass, to antiques, to very old photographs. My century old badly faded image of my maternal grandmother, in Edwardian attire complete with a giant hat similar to the awesome ones I was dazzled by in the movie Howards End, tends to trump anything most people have in their family collections. Many modern families don’t even have more than a handful of old pictures, if that. The woman I met had what will probably be the greatest antique photograph story I’ll ever hear.

I mentioned that many people find my mom’s stories of her life fascinating, since she lived through so much history. When I said she was born just a few years after the Titanic sank, this articulate and intelligent young woman quietly stated that more than one of her ancestors were on the Titanic. One of them was a member of the orchestra that famously accompanied the doomed ship on her tragic swansong. A particularly poignant event that’s become a point of consternation among those deeply interested in the fated first and last voyage of the most famous ship in history was that the orchestra member’s wife was charged for his lost uniform. Imagine being informed that your beloved lost spouse’s company uniform must be paid for…as it was lost to the depths of the sea. These are parts of the story I’ve heard about in countless TV documentaries. It was breathtaking to talk about them as someone’s family memories.

People Who Died on the Titanic

​When my mom was a child her family didn’t have a lot of money, but they made up for it with love and small traditions. The way they celebrated seems strange to us now, but at the time it was all they knew.

One of the best she told me about was their Christmas tree. Her father would go into the woods and cut down a huge holly. I had never heard of holly as a Christmas tree, but it must have been magnificent. Their house had big rooms with high ceilings. Try as I might to imagine the scene, I can’t quite get hold of an image of the way they would tie the top of the tree to the ceiling to keep it firmly upright. They had small candles in metal holders that attached to the tree branches. They would only light the candles briefly. That I can certainly understand. The potential for a catastrophic fire would have been horrifying, especially inside a big old wooden house, but think of the joy the sight of that tree, with its natural decorations of green leaves and red berries, gleaming in the candlelight, brought to the children’s faces.

When time came to open presents, packages were sparse, but so very appreciated. My mom’s face would still light up, almost a century later, as she spoke of the year she got a tiny doll in her sock. They didn’t even have traditional Christmas stockings. Or perhaps the socks were traditional back then for country folks. She loved that doll so much, partly because even a little girl’s doll was a rare thing for her.

(This is a very old picture of my mom, with dolls. One of the big ones was hers, the other her older sister’s. The one she’s holding may be the little one she got for Christmas.)

Somehow, an orange and an apple found their way into each child’s sock, along with a handful of nuts in their shells. A little candy would appear in a good year. If her parents couldn’t buy any, her mother might make fudge or divinity candy. They made delicious, sticky popcorn balls and in sparser times chicken and dressing would be the centerpiece of their Christmas dinner, instead of turkey or goose. My grandmother had a reputation as a wonderful cook, even though she had to do it all, roasting the meat, baking cakes and pies and the wonderful cookies she called tea cakes, in the oven of a wood burning cook stove that practically roasted the kitchen, as well as the food.

Maybe all this is why my mom never wanted much for Christmas and was so grateful for the special presents I picked out so carefully to make up a little for the spare Christmases she knew as a child. I think the reality was that she didn’t think of those holidays as spare. She remembered each  gift she received with joy, because every single humble one was wrapped so beautifully in the love that was the best gift of all.