Saturday, December 27, 2008

More Old Photos

Another old photograph out of the jumble caught my eye. It was sepia tint of the Bartley family taken around the turn of the century. Typical of family portraits taken in those days, no one smiled. In fact, they seemed to almost scowl. Unlike today’s toothy poses, having your picture taken back then was apparently serious business. It must have been popular to try to look as if someone had just died.

My grandmother, the oldest of James and Martha Jane Bartley’s six children, stood prim and erect behind her stone-faced father. This 8x10 was a reproduction from a larger original that I had seen on a wall somewhere. I wondered…did the Bartley family still gaze somberly into someone's living room? Or had the oval mahogany and beveled glass that once framed their faces been consigned to some attic or garage somewhere.

I couldn’t give a name to all the faces but I knew my cousin Norma would know them all.

“Well, the one on the left behind Grandpa Bartley is Granny”, she said, referring to our grandmother, Roxie Thompson. “The little boy holding the horse is Uncle Hodge.”

“Look at that face," I said. "He looks like someone just licked all the red off his candy.”
“That’s Lillie beside Granny,” she said, ignoring the remark. “She died real young. I think your mother was named after her.”

My mother's name is Anna Lillie Thompson. I had not known where the Lillie came from until now. I wondered how old her namesake had been when she died and why she had died so young. Norma said she didn’t know.

Left to right from Lillie was Bonnie, the spunky one, and Grace, whom I remembered as a stately woman who seemed to typify her name. “Granny Bartley” held little “Flo”, the youngest, on her lap. I had seen “aunt Flo” (short for Florence?) once when I was six years old. I remembered only that she lived in Michigan and owned a television. I had never met Uncle Hodge.

This box of pictures had taken the better part of my afternoon. There were bills to pay and e-mails to answer. I hefted the plastic bin back onto the shelf and resumed my work, thinking how like wind-driven seeds we all are. We start off together, hatchlings and parents, on the same path. Then the winds of circumstance catch us and carry us off to new ground where we leave our imprint on places and people and thereby alter the cosmos. Is this dispersal of our essence part of the master plan? Are we just part of the clockwork? It comes to mind that the first funeral I attended was that of the patriarch of this old photograph, Grandpa James Bartley, in Rose Hill, VA. I can still see him, pale and waxen in his casket, his trademark thick mustache, now gray, his most dominant feature, even in repose. I remember being frightened and, at the same time, intrigued by the spectacle of death. I remember staring at the old man's mustache and wondering why no other men in the room had one.

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