Several days ago I received a letter from my cousin M who lives in New Mexico. Along with the letter came this copy of old photograph from the early 1900s, a solemn couple standing side by side and holding hands. M had a pretty good idea who they were but wanted a second opinion from me. These were not stylish people—no plumed hat or corseted waist or bouffant hairdo for the woman. As with most men during that era, the man was decked out in a suit. It fit him well. His deep-set eyes were as dark as the hair that matched his drooping mustache. The woman was proud and slender. Her most striking feature, almond-shaped eyes that I’d not only seen before in assorted relatives but had also conjured up when describing a tragic heroine in one of my sagas. Yes, indeed, this man and woman from long ago were the immigrant parents of M’s father and my mother and their three siblings.
In fact I have that same photograph, passed down from my mother who got it from her mother, my grandma. It was not a wedding photograph but one taken after they’d moved from Iron Belt, Wisconsin, to a series of coal mining towns in Southern Illinois. I also inherited two other photographs that include their children, the fortunate five who had survived infancy since at least two babies did not. In the second family photo my grandfather was a year away from dying, his dark eyes sunk deep into their sockets; his coal miner’s body ravaged by the effects of what doctors had diagnosed as tuberculosis. Grandma sat straight and still proud but she looked worn and tired. Shortly after his death, she married another miner, this one a widower with two daughters.
Of course, by the time I knew Grandma, she looked nothing like the young woman in the photographs from long ago. She was now round and sassy, her almond eyes hidden behind wire-rimmed spectacles. Again a widow, she had evolved into a fiercely independent woman before it was considered every woman’s right and obligation. She could read and write Italian but barely spoke English. Before she signed her name on business documents, one of her children, often the youngest who was college educated, made sure everything was in order.
Grandma invested smartly, in the beginning with money earned from her cows, their milk and cheese she made from the milk. Over the years she bought various properties—not only empty lots but modest houses rented out for additional income. She led an austere life and mostly off of the land, always a summer garden that produced herbs and veggies for tasty soups, stews, and side dishes to accompany polenta with chicken or rabbit or beef. I can still smell the delectable odors emanating from her kitchen. Its only source of water came from a hand pump that required priming before delivering the sudden gush of well water.
How do I best remember Grandma? As a story keeper who passed stories on to my mother who passed them on to me. Always with a soft black cap covering her sparse hair, a long print apron covering her dress of a different print, the dress almost down to her ankles, dark stockings covering sturdy legs, and over those stockings a trace of the long underwear she wore year-round. Behind her round spectacles, those almond-shaped eyes danced as she spoke to me in the Italian Piemontese dialect her children all spoke but failed to teach their children. A shame, really, but when I brought around my soon-to-be-husband, she took to D right away since he was a first generation Italian who communicated with her in the dialect his Piemontese grandparents had taught him.
My last photograph of Grandma, seven months before she died, is now part of our treasured wedding album. True to her tradition, she wore a soft black cap, print dress, sturdy stockings and long underwear but not the apron. The apron my mother convinced Grandma not to wear on my special day.
What about you? Any photos from long ago that conjure up special memories?