The photo is a basement shoebox relic. It’s old. It’s bent and cracked. No Photoshop effects, here. Just a snapshot.
The subjects are familiar faces, but the photo was taken probably more than sixty years ago, before I really knew them. Maybe before I was born. Even in the older women there is youth I never saw in later years. From left to right, my Aunt Shirley; my grandmother Bettie Pearl, who I knew as Mom; my great-grandmother Tida, who we called Tidy; and my mother, Gloria, who looks to be with child.
The place, I believe, is my great-grandmother’s kitchen. If I had to guess, I would say it was breakfast. There’s the coffee pot and toaster. But I can’t imagine them gathering so early just for breakfast. Maybe lunch, which they called dinner. Dinner would have included fried potatoes and tomatoes from the garden. Supper was the evening meal. There would have been men in the picture by then.
There’s tension evident in the photograph. Not a one could manage a smile, which is very unusual for my mother and Aunt Shirley, especially in front of a camera. There’s a weariness, too. Maybe they had been working. Maybe canning tomatoes or beans.
They were all different.
My mother was the free spirit, enjoying every moment.
My aunt was sophistication personified, full of grace and elegance.
My grandmother, hardworking and kind, ready to share with everyone.
My great-grandmother, the strong, independent woman living by herself.
Maybe that was the source of the tension. Around the table love and respect, yet each one not quite understanding the other. One dreams of this, another of that. And dreams, what are they for, anyway? another may think. And Tidy, who has already seen enough heartbreak for all of them, keeps it to herself.
I’ll never know. They’re all gone now. Not that any of them would give me a straight answer anyway.
I think that’ s the wonder of old photographs. They tell a story, but never the entire story. A moment frozen in time that forces us to think about those who have gone on, to see if we can fill in the blanks. It forces us to remember them as they were, beyond the smiles and laughter. It forces us to remember who they really were.