52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 4: Favorite Photo
PROMPT: Tell the story of a favorite photo — who is in it, when and where was it taken, and why was it taken. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a sepia-toned Victorian era photo. It could be a photo you took last week! (We are part of our own family history, after all.)
I have much older photos in my family tree than the image above–photos of my great great-grandfather in his Civil War uniform and even a portrait of his parents: my great great great-grandparents.
I have treasured portraits of large families sitting stiffly with nary a smile; I have priceless candid photos that never fail to make me smile, mirroring the smiles and laughter I see in the photos themselves.
“…the fundamental reason this is my favorite photograph is because of its story-telling properties.”
What is it about this photo that makes it my favorite?
- First of all, the boy in the photo is my father. I love seeing any photos of him as a young boy. This photo superbly captures his cherubic face, framed by that impressive derby. He is quite the dapper lad!
- Similarly, this is one of very few candid photos of my grandmother as a young woman.
But the fundamental reason this is my favorite photograph is because of its story-telling properties.
The photo above was taken in New York City sometime during World War II. Accompanying my father and grandmother is her mother-in-law; my great-grandfather was, presumably, the photographer. At the time of this photograph, my grandfather–who was serving in the Merchant Marines–was back in the U.S. on leave. His parents, and his wife and young son had travelled all the way from Joplin, Missouri, to meet his ship and to spend some of his leave together.
Over the years, I have asked questions and learned more about my grandparents–both as individuals as well as their life together as a couple. I knew them only late in their lives, and details about their life as a young family come from what has been told to me and from family photos.
With that disclaimer, as a curator of my family’s history, I sometimes make postulations about that history. Suppositions I have about my grandparents are hinted at in this photo.
Omar Weldon Laney (1911-1985) and Elizabeth Ann Williamson (1915-2005) met in Picher, Oklahoma. They came from somewhat different backgrounds. I suspect that they did not always share the same values or priorities as a couple, but this is conjecture on my part. Even if there is any validity to that assumption, any friction this might have caused in their marriage was never apparent to me and probably was not to anyone else.
The Laney family supposedly appreciated the finer things in life. I’m not sure if they had money, had expensive taste, or both, but it would seem that—for them—it was always better to go First Class. The Williamsons, on the other hand, led a more simple, frugal existence and–perhaps due to their Scottish sensibilities–tended to avoid drawing attention to themselves in general, including what they wore, what they drove, or their acquisitions.
I gather that my grandparents also differed in personality. My grandfather seems to have been more of an adventurer and a risk-taker than my grandmother. Throughout his adult life, he came up with various schemes or plans–usually involving travel or an adventure of some sort–an excitement for which my grandmother did not seem to share.
At one time, my grandfather wanted to get a houseboat, relocate to the East Coast, and live on this boat. At another time in their married life, he dreamed of hitting the road in a rig, seeing the country while being paid for long-hauls behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. These, and perhaps other dreams I don’t know about, were never realized. Hearing such tales leaves me with an image of a man who was restless and never quite “settled.” He yearned to roam, venture out, and explore exotic places as he had done in the war.
My grandmother, I sense, did not share this spirit of adventure. In fairness, some of my grandfather’s proposals undoubtedly represented some amount of financial risk. She had lived through the Great Depression as well as the experience of saving and stockpiling food and supplies for herself and her young son due to shortages during the war. Having gone through these experiences, the thought of putting up a large initial outlay of cash for these plans—the success of which was not guaranteed—probably made her uncomfortable, and understandably so.
I get the idea that when he came to her with yet another big plan up his sleeve, she became fearful and worried. Perhaps she was nervous that he might drop a lot of money on something like a truck or boat without consulting her or without completely thinking the plan through, including worst-case scenarios. Perhaps she also feared disappointing him, or she felt guilty for not being in a position to give him the validation and support he was seeking and instead voicing her doubts about the feasibility of the plan.
Was my grandfather a delusional spend-thrift not content with his life as it was, fantasizing about adventurous, possibly risky plans? Was my grandmother an intractable killjoy whose caution stifled her husband’s aspirations? I’m certain neither statement is true. But I do get the sense that differences in their personalities and in their priorities caused at least a small amount of friction in their marriage.
“…I see a little bit of myself in this photograph.”
With the cautionary reminder that most of the above is conjecture on my part, I “read” this photo in the following way:
- I see a mother-in-law who I imagine was enjoying a respite from the slower pace of life in Joplin and who was ready to “hit the ground running”—shopping and sight-seeing in Manhattan. Perhaps the hat on my father’s head had even been purchased by her in New York. Perhaps it was bought and/or worn for the special occasion of meeting his father whom he hadn’t seen in months, or his mother had him wear it in order to impress her in-laws.
- I see a glimmer of hesitation on a young mother’s face. I’m guessing that she is excited to see her husband again after such a long time, but that at the moment the shutter clicked, her enthusiasm is tempered by a bit by anxiety or apprehension. Perhaps she is anxious about how the visit will go. I’m certain that the family either drove or took a bus or train from Missouri to New York. Could all that time traveling have been tiring? Had traveling together in close proximity with her in-laws and her young son made it difficult for her to relax? Did she feel she was being judged—about what she was wearing? About her parenting? Probably having been cautioned about crime and pickpockets, she determinedly clutches her young son closely to her. Perhaps she’s experiencing a bit of sensory overload—the crowded sidewalks, the noise of horns honking, the din of loud voices, construction machinery, traffic, smells. Rather than being enthralled with the vibrancy of the big city, she is perhaps feeling a bit overwhelmed. Yet, she tries not to let her uncertainty show, determined to remain upbeat as she prepares to greet her husband.
And, finally, I see a little bit of myself in this photograph.
- In the mother whose precious only child is much-loved and very precious.
- In the young woman, born and raised in the Midwest, who finds herself in New York City and perhaps finds it a bit daunting.
- In the hesitation with which I sense she navigates the city, lacking the quick, self-confident stride possessed by others for whom the city is a source of energy.
- In the determination in the young woman’s face. She has faced many other challenges—like taking care of a young child by herself while her husband has been overseas. She remembers other times she has risen to the occasion and, when she finds her confidence flagging, she reminds herself that she is strong and capable.
I am the product of some melange of all four of these relatives’ DNA. But looking at my grandmother in this photo, I am struck with a visceral sense of recognition, something not unlike déja vu. I am immediately transported back almost thirty years to the time when, at the age of thirty, this small-town girl moved all the way across the country upon securing an excellent job that required relocating to New York City.
As much as I have taken advantage of the cultural and historical treasures New York has to offer—and shared them with my husband and daughter—I still find New York intimidating and exhausting a lot of the time. I married someone who is passionate about this city, and I have watched my daughter grow up enthralled with New York and having taken advantage of experiences she could not have had anywhere else. The two of them have fostered in me a deeper appreciation for the city’s extraordinary vitality and its unique offerings.
I find it so remarkable that a fraction of a second in time—captured on film about eighty years ago—resonates so intensely with me and conjures up such specific emotions as I look at it today!