Sunday, May 10, 2015

old photos, happy mother’s day, and say it again, Butch: Who are those guys?

It’s Mother’s Day and I wish I were with my mom in California, sitting in her room or wheeling her away from bingo, taking her outside, Josie doing his best to pull us along, to get to the koi pond first, where we all like to sit, my mom in her chair, Josie and me on a glider, unless there are palm nuts on the ground for Josie to snuff around in which he does, perhaps eating a few, whether he should or not. But I came home and my mom stayed where she is and that is, as they say, life. My sisters are there and at some point this will be read to her and all I’ve got to say is: Hey, Mom, who the heck are these people?


We’ve done this before, many times, I am sure, so I am confident of your answer. “Hmmm. I don’t know. Could that be Grandpa Morris? … 

Well, if you don’t know, I don’t, and if you do know and you tell me, I’ll soon forget.

Then you’ll say, “Someone should write it down.”

Is that your Grandpa Morris? The whole Morris family?
Before they adopted Daisy? Maybe circa 1890?

These photos come up because I have embarked on a slow, methodical cleaning out and organization of my cabin, starting with the six drawers in the kitchen, one of which is for utensils: your knives and forks and spoons and bottle openers and such; one of which is for recycled plastic bags, cloth napkins (mostly inherited), dish towels, twist ties and such; and one of which is for storage containers such as empty tea boxes, empty cottage cheese tubs, a few odd pieces of heirloom Tupperware. Yes, I am my mother’s daughter, so I guess a granddaughter of the Great Depression, but I do pare it down occasionally and draw the line at stockpiling tiny soaps and showercaps and notepads filched from resorts and motels.

But back to the drawers. There is one for pens and pencils and rubber bands and thumbtacks and paper clips and the like, and there is one for receipts and envelopes, blank cards and stamps. And then there is a file drawer. Its organization got lumped in with that of the four-drawer file cabinet in the loft, and that’s when this pile of old photos got spilled, for in front of that file cabinet, on the floor, was a red accordion box file into which I had dumped, a month or so ago, upon my return from California, this most recent cache of photos to have made its way from somewhere else to here.

Two guys on donkeys.

Who the heck are these guys?

Two guys in a donkey cart.

Now there’s a man I know, the one in front, that’s my grandfather, my mother’s father. Apparently he liked these funny photo postcards you could make way back then. I’ve seen others with his likeness, including one where he and his buddy are behind bars, locked up in a fake jail somewhere for cattle rustling or some such, or so he writes. I never met him, just have these pictures of him. He came from a large clan of Treloars in Iowa, the clan originally from Cornwall, England. He liked horses, and here’s a more recent (relatively speaking) snapshot of him and his horse King, on a street in a small town in Illinois.

Giddyup, Grandpa.

And here’s a picture of my mother, from the late 1930s, when she and some friends made it to the Continental Divide. Apparently, that year, big, round, white buttons were all the rage.

The only one I know is on the left.

But say now, who are these gals?

I know no one in this picture.

Photos similar to this one pop up again and again, in one group of old photos or another, and we are all very curious about what is going on and who these people are. Is it some kind of small town, Midwest, feminist cabal? A benign church group? A scary religious cult? What’s with the spears?

And now I can hear my mother saying, once again, with a touch of exasperation: Oh, I don’t know.

Then why have you kept these pictures all these years???

But here’s a clue, regarding the photo, I mean, not why we keep year after year all this stuff in our desk drawers and file cabinets that we pretend to know nothing about. On the reverse is a poem that looks to be adapted from the hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” And you can see that this was also one of those photos made into a handy postcard.


At least, though, some of those women were almost smiling. I have found it all too easy to think of every one of my ancestors as a Gloomy Gus. Was life so hard back then? Were they all as scary and serious as they look?

Who are these people?

Of course the reason for all the frowning has a lot more to do with technology and the perception of the day than with personality, or at least that’s what I read when I google “When did people start smiling in photos?” The gist of it is, according to the Internet, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a person had to sit still for 15 minutes or more for just one photo, and it’s kind of hard to smile for that long unless, of course, you are a drunkard or a fool (try it), and, back then, if you were smiling for 15 minutes or more most people would think you were a drunkard or a fool whether you were or not, that’s just the way it was, and, since nobody wanted to be thought of as a drunkard or a fool, to make sure that you did not end up etched into eternity that way the photographer might say something like “Say prune” just as he was snapping the shutter, and thus would your face take on the desired look of the time: small-mouthed and serious, maybe even downright glum.

Prooooooon.

Try it, it’s fun.

Perhaps someday on social media there will be this thing called Pruney Tuesday (#PT) and everyone will say “prune,” post sour-puss selfies, prove that we are not all just a bunch of fools and drunkards no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. In retrospect, that is.

Fool, drunkard, or Josie?

People started smiling in photographs (according to what I read on the Internet) soon after Kodak came out with its Brownie camera in 1900. Apparently someone in their marketing department realized that smiles sell better than frowns. People do like cheese better than prunes.

But not these gals. By the way, who are these people?

This photo is a tintype, as are the first two in this post, and the entry on tintypes in Wikipedia states: A photographer could prepare, expose, develop and varnish a tintype plate and have it ready for the customer in a few minutes. Apparently too much research can muddy the facts.

For a mini-history on the development of smiles in pictures, take a spin through the “Brownie Camera Ads and Poster Page” at brownie-camera.com. Perhaps this ad from 1914 is the ancestor to all of today’s cute cat videos.


By 1937, voilà, babies and dogs, everyone smiling, everyone bringing something to the conversation.


But my mother likes to hear about the weather, so I’ll tell you how one day this week the wind blew so hard out of the southwest the temperature soared into the mid-80s just as if there were nothing between us and the desert. Come early evening, a wild and windy 10-minute torrential downpour reminded us where we were. The wind shifted northwest; the next day was grey and cool. Trees unfurled new leaves creating a scrim of green—light green, dark green, yellow-green, reddish green, vermilion green. The birds were joyful, and when a pair of goldfinches flitted by they stood out like brilliant notes on a grey-green score. The marsh marigolds are blooming and the trout lilies and even the serviceberry, up here called sugar plum, and the leaves of the wild delphiniums are coming up amid the roadside weeds. The ticks are yet a serious matter. At the vet the other day there was a sign posted with the news that two cases of canine Lyme disease have been reported so far in this area in 2015. So we are being vigilant. And, by the way, Elliott weighs 20 pounds, Josie 17.

This morning is cloudy, barely 30 degrees, and we have a fire going. Josie is by my side, Elliott is snuggled in somewhere, and yes, Mom, it is cozy. Happy Mother’s Day. Wish you here.

Is that you on the stilts?