I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my parents and my brother, as well as my maternal grandmother. Not with grief, but with joy. They’ve been in my dreams, and in my dreams, they’re happy and healthy. It’s good to have those memories, and today while I was looking for a photo album that I couldn’t find, I ran across some photos in a folder, and they were good ones to have.
Through them, I see an arc of our lives. That’s part of the wonder of photographs, I think. Select some, put them in a chronological order, and you’ve got an automatic narrative.
The first photo is one taken long before I was born. In it, my mother Irene is the little girl on the right, with the blond hair in a bob, with a bow in her hair. My Aunt Dottie is the little girl on the left, with the brunette hair and a bow. Their mother, my grandmother Ella, is the woman in the photo — hair parted, waved, and (I think) bobbed. You can’t tell it, because the photo is black and white, but her hair is dark auburn. The man in the photo is my Charles Olaf Steele, my Grampa Charlie.
This looks like any family portrait. It’s only when you know the backstory, though, that our family history comes to life. This is my grandmother’s wedding day portrait — her third wedding. Mother and Aunt Dottie are maybe 2 and 4.
Ella’s dress, shoes, and hair might be a clue about time period — the flapper era. Notice that she’s dressed quit stylishly, with a sleeveless dress. She was always a sharp dresser. Mother looks off to her left, away from the camera — very shy, perhaps, or distracted by something outside the frame. Aunt Dottie has her hand on her hip and looks into the camera, chin down a bit — she always did like to strike a pose! Grampa Charlie is rather solemn, but anybody who knew him would know that soon there’d be a laugh coming.
Even after Ella and Charlie divorced, and after she’d remarried, he was part of their and our lives. He’d even come over for dinner sometimes; Glenn, Ella’s fourth and last husband, liked him and said he didn’t have anything against Charlie. I grew up thinking that this was normal — that everyone got along this well. I’m sure there were tensions, but those were never verbalized and we kids never picked up on anything later in life.
As far as Mother was concerned, Charlie was her father. When she was of age, she had her name changed and had him adopt her. He was, always, “Daddy” to her — not the biological father she never knew.
By World War II, Ella had married again, to Glenn Adair. He was in the Coast Guard, and this photo was taken during a leave home. He and Ella have gone out with friends. Notice again that Ella’s very much a modern woman. You’d know it was the 1940s just by looking at her hair and dress, I think. They enjoyed going out with friends, and there are many other photos of such events.
Dad came into the picture after World War II, shortly after he was out of the service in 1946, living in Beaumont, and working for Sun Oil Company. He first saw Mother when he was driving with a friend of his in downtown Beaumont, and Mother and a friend of hers, June, were driving in a convertible. Dad liked the way she looked, as he always told it. And his friend happened to be dating Mother’s friend, and introduced them. That was that.
Mother was out of high school, living at home with Ella and Glenn, and attending business school. Since she was Catholic and Dad was Church of Christ, their relationship was a tricky one. By the time they married in May 1948, they’d actually broken up a couple of times over this, but their love was strong enough to deal with a mixed marriage. They couldn’t marry in the church, but instead married in the priest’s rectory. This next photo is of the two of them on their wedding day. This was taken in front of their new car.
Her wedding suit and shoes have long since disappeared, but in my childhood I remember dressing up in the shoes and her hat. There’s another photo of their reception at Glenn and Ella’s house, and the glasses they’re toasting with now sit in my china hutch. My grandmother gave the set to me when I lived in Beaumont sometime between 1975 and 1978. She’d gotten the set in the 1930s, I think.
At the time of their wedding, Mother was 21 and Dad was 25. Again, I remember them looking like this. Dad was tall and slim, and so was Mother.
Christmas was always a time for parties, family and otherwise. This is at Ella’s house, sometime after 1948 and probably before 1951. I remember all of these women — they were good friends of my grandmother’s, and I met all of them. Mother looks particularly glamorous here, I’ve always thought — again, very 1940s.
Mother married into the Ware family — and here they all are, at the farm, sometime probably in the late 1940s. Mother and Dad are here, as are Dad’s brother James and James’s wife Jean — neither brother has any children yet. Uncle James is at the right, and Aunt Jean is to his left. Dad’s peeking out; you can barely see him. Mother’s at the left, with her hair up. Dad’s sister Mildred and her husband G.C. Snodgrass, though, have two sons by now, Mike and Charlie. Aunt Mildred and Mike and Charlie are at the front in the middle of the photo. Uncle G.C. is at the back — he’s the one with the snazzy set to his hat. Granddad Ware is with them at the top left. I think Grandmother must have taken the picture.
By Christmas 1951, I’d come along. This next photo is of Mother and me, and this is my first Christmas. I was six months old. The next month, we moved to Humble, Texas, near Houston. I was their second child, but their first to survive.
We spent a lot of time at the farm with my grandparents, and some of my earliest memories are of the farm. It was always fun to be there, and it was especially fun if my cousins were there. We spent Christmas 1953 there, when I was 2 1/2, and here I am with my cousins Mike and Charlie. I’m sure the doll was mine, not Mike’s! And I remember that rocker, too.
Often when we were at the farm, we were joined by Uncle James, Aunt Jean, and their two children, Jim and Barbara. Jim was born in 1950 and Barbara in 1952. We’re the stairsteps — Jim is 10 months older than I am; Barbara is 11 months younger. She was born on June 22, 1952 — Dad’s birthday. As she told him once, she was the best birthday present he ever got! This photo probably was taken in 1954 or 1955. I’m the one laughing. You might pick up on the cowboy theme, too. We’re with Grandmother and Granddad Ware; Mother and Aunt Jean are in the background to the right.
By January 1956, we’d moved to an oil field camp near Sunset, Louisiana. In January, when this next picture was taken, I am dressed in cowboy boots, jeans, and am 4 1/2. My brother Phil would be born two months later, on March 25, 1956. I was expecting and wanting a baby sister — so I could dress her up like a doll. When he was born, and I found out that I had a brother rather than a sister, I ran way — and got as far as a tree between our house and the next-door neighbor’s house. I climbed up it. Mrs. Johnson, the neighbor, got me down by promising me that my brother would wear dresses and I’d get to dress him up. That worked. Of course, in the 1950s, little babies — boys or girls — were often dressed alike, in dresses. My brother wore some, and I guess I’d worn them – -and they’re still in the cedar chest in Egan.
In May 1956, we were in Beaumont, at Glenn and Ella’s, and here I am with them and my cousins Carolyn and Terry, my mother’s nieces.
By September 1956, Phil was six months old. I’d gotten over the disappointment of having a baby brother instead of a baby sister. I thought he was pretty neat. The red couch we’re on is one I well remember — it made into a sleeper; all you had to do was click the back down. The material was nubby — not rough, just nubby. I can still feel it if I close my eyes.
We moved to Egan in January 1957, and one year later, Kay was born. These school photos show Kay and Phil and me. Katie hates this photo, but I love it. She is so cute here, and just kind of startled. Mother wanted our hair to curl, and believe me, Kay and I were both born with straight hair. I endured many permanents; in this picture, mine was growing out — but Mother has trimmed my bangs, and I can tell because she never cut them straight. Mother also tried her darndest to make Kay’s hair swirl on top. Phil didn’t have to worry about any attempts to give him curls.
Skip forward to 1973 or 1974. If it’s 1973, it’s when we threw a 25th wedding anniversary party for Mother and Dad. If it’s1974, this is when Phil graduated from high school. The three of us look a bit different here. Kay and I are thinner. She’s blonder. Notice our dresses — short skirts were still the vogue. I just like that it’s three of us, linked together and smiling.
In 1974, in the summer, Ella took us to Europe for a vacation. I was going to England for six weeks to attend a six-week summer school at Stratford-on-Avon for graduate credit; Kay was still in high school. Phil was in college at McNeese — he didn’t want to go. Kay and I have changed, but the setting for this photo hasn’t — the Coliseum in Rome.
By 1991, the time of the next photo, we had an addition to our family. This is March 1991, and I’m holding Kay’s daughter, my niece and goddaughter Rachel. She was only a couple of days old here, and Aunt Cheryl was in love. She’s taller than I am now, but she’s still the light of my life.
By 2005, Kay, Rachel, Dad, and I were celebrating as Dad’s Aunt Sallie Whitton celebrated her 100th birthday. The back row, left to right: Rachel, Kay, me, Mike, Dad, Aunt Jean. The front row: Mike’s wife Shirley, Aunt Sallie, and Aunt Mildred. Aunt Sallie was one of Grandmother Ware’s sisters; she lived to be 104 1/2.
It’s not that I don’t miss the loved ones who are no longer here. I do. I suppose I could look at these photographs and dwell on just how many of these people have died, but I don’t do that. Instead, I’m sitting here smiling — albeit with a few tears. Sorting through the folder of photographs has been fun today. I sat at the dining room table on and off all day, looking and remembering. There are so many more in that folder, and even more in boxes and tubs and on VHS (soon to be digitized).
Such joy in the pictures, the faces, the memories.
Bit by bit, I hope to scan many more photographs and label them. Digital storage will take a lot less room than physical photos and negatives. I’ve always loved cameras and photography, and apparently that trait comes from both sides of the family. I have a collection of cameras to prove this — not just my own cameras, but a Kodak that belonged to Grandmother and Granddad Ware, from the early 20th century; Mother and Dad’s first Kodak, as well as their movie camera, circa 1957; and Phil’s SLR, a Pentax K-1000, and his video camera.
These are not photographs of loss. They’re photographs of family, of joy, of love.