Remembering Our Ancestors on Memorial Day

This weekend, millions of Americans are celebrating one of this country’s oldest and biggest federal holidays–Memorial Day.  Originally named, Decoration Day, it was created after the Civil War to honor those who had died in our military service. Today, in cemeteries across the United States, veterans’ and other organizations place small U.S. flags at the graves of those who served in our armed forces.  My Dad, along with those of so many others, is among them.

My mother's family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.
My mother’s family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.

Americans also use this day to decorate the graves of their loved ones and to gather together in cemeteries large and small, to honor those generations who have gone before them.  The U.S. doesn’t have, as do many other countries in the world, a day specifically designated as ‘ancestors’ day. Probably one reason for that is because so many Americans don’t even know their ancestral heritage. I am fortunate in that I have the history of my mother’s paternal family dating back to the 1500s. And I know my family in Sweden, from where both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather emigrated during the late 1860s. I have been to visit my family there several times and one year, took with me, my aunt, who, was the second oldest in my mother’s family and who had fond memories of her Swedish-born grandmother and grandfather.

My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather's farm in Sweden.
My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather’s farm in Sweden.

During that trip, now many years ago, we first met my Swedish cousins and went to the home places of both her grandparents. What a thrill for both of us. Shivers shot down my back when I first heard my cousin’s father voice because his sounded so much like that of my own grandfather–who would have been his uncle–,who died when I was only three. We were both excited when the farmer who then occupied the farmhouse where my great grand father had grown up, invited us in and proudly showed us the book that had come with the farm, documenting its history and those who had once owned it. Later on that same trip, we found his name registered with many others who had left Sweden during that time, when we visited the Utvandrarnas hus, or the House of Emigrants in Vaxjo.

My aunt points to my great grandfather's name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.
My aunt points to my great grandfather’s name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.

Then upon walking around field where my great-grandmother’s had once stood, our family’s Swedish friend and host for much of our stay, motioned for us to “Kommer här.”  He was standing next to a thick green bush and when we joined him, he parted the center of the bush with his arms to reveal a small, tarnished bronze plaque attached to a metal pole. The inscription on the plaque took my breath away. It said, in translation, that “Here in this place once lived 1858-1867 Carl Axel Carlsson and his wife who emigrated to North America”.

My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.
My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.

Carl Carlsson was my great-great grandfather. I still get chills even writing this as I did upon first seeing this. My aunt was nearly in tears. For her, this was a completion of a journey for my great-grandmother who was old enough to remember her Swedish childhood when she left with her family. At age 70, the same age as my aunt was then, great grandmother had written a letter to her family in the old country, expressing her desire to  see Sweden once more but knew that she never would as she was now too old to make the long trip. My aunt felt as is she had made the trip for her.

The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.
The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.

A few years later, my aunt decided to honor her grandparents by designing a new headstone for their graves engraved with the provincial flowers from their respective Swedish homes and an inscription that commemorated their immigration to America. All her brothers and sisters, and their spouses, gathered at the little creek-side cemetery in the Missouri countryside for a private installation ceremony that my aunt had planned. They placed flowers and an American flag on the headstone, they listened as my aunt recounted the story of our visit to the homes in Sweden and her vivid memories of her grandparents. Then they sang a hymn that had been a favorite of her grandparents:  Shall We Gather at the River. Tears welled in my eyes as they sang. Afterwards, I surprised my aunt by presenting to her an exact, framed replica of the plaque that we had discovered in Sweden and a photograph of the Carlsson family taken shortly after they had arrived in this country. It was now her turn to be in tears.

 Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.
Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.

Last Memorial Day, my brother and I drove the two hours to the same little Missouri cemetery. We placed flowers on the graves of our family members buried there, stopped by the spot where their two-story wood frame farmhouse once stood and remembered our family, my aunts and uncles, their parents and grandparents, just as they did on that day in the cemetery.  The framed plaque hung in the entryway of aunt’s home for years. When she died a few years ago, I was given the plaque. It is now displayed in my entry hall where it reminds me everyday of the trip we made together, the family we loved so much, and of a heritage of which I am proud.

 

Mother Mary Charms Me

You may find it odd that I devote my Mother’s Day piece to someone else’s Mom. In fact, I could write about a lot of Mom’s I have known who have been big influences in my own life and never run out of material. But this time, I want to tell you a woman I met just last December when I photographed her and her family in my studio.

Her daughter from the San Francisco Bay area had set up a family studio portrait for when she and her 92-year-old mother would be in town visiting her sister.  It was becoming more difficult for her mother to travel, the daughter explained, so she wanted me to create a portrait of them while she was still able to make the trip.

When they arrived at my studio, her ‘girls’ helped her in. She sometimes used a wheelchair, especially since one foot hurt, but on this day, she walked in on her own with a cane and some assistance from her daughters.  She greeted me politely as she crossed the threshold with a warm smile and introduced herself as “Mary.”

Once inside, she slipped off her coat to reveal a bright, lipstick red glittery jersey top and jacket and black slacks that she was wearing. She and the girls had bought it, along with their own shimmery tops especially for our session. The color couldn’t have been a better choice for Mary. It complimented her own skin tones and the red-highlights in her hair. The glitter reflected a twinkle in her eye. I could tell that she felt quite special to be so dressed up.

Before heading into the camera study, I talked with her and the family, as I do with all of my portrait clients. Usually I meet clients prior to a photo session to plan our time together and to become acquainted before I photograph them. But it hadn’t been possible this time. Her daughters stepped into my little dressing room to straighten their hair, put on jewelry and check make-up. Meanwhile, Mary and I chatted.

Mary came to my studio with her two daughters for a family portrait together.
Mary came to my studio with her two daughters for a family portrait together.

I wanted to know a little bit about her, she belonged, after all, to one of the most fascinating and rapidly vanishing generations of our time. I told her that I once had family in the Bay Area who had moved there from the Midwest shortly before the World War II.  I wondered if she had grown up in San Francisco.

And with that, she opened up. No, she hadn’t grown up in San Francisco. She was raised in a small town in Oklahoma. During the War, she moved to Washington D.C. “I had taken typing in school,” she said. “I was pretty good typist too. When War broke out, they needed people in Washington.

“I had taken a typing test and passed it. My Daddy told me that I should apply. That I had taken that class and could type and I should apply.” As she spoke, I could picture her, a young woman, having grown up in the Depression, probably somewhere in the Dust Bowl as most of Oklahoma was.

“So I did,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I was hired! Can you imagine that?” she asked. “Here I was just a young girl from Oklahoma and now I was going to live in Washington. I had never been outside of Oklahoma and here I was going to Washington!”  I could hear in voice both wonder and pride, as if she had just received the news.

“Did you know anyone there?” I asked.

“No.” she said. “Only one other girl who was from Oklahoma too.”

Mary was quite at home with her two daughters during our studio portrait session.
Mary was quite at home with her two daughters during our studio portrait session.

It took two days by train to travel East to the nation’s capitol. What a ride it must have been, through country she had only read about in books. Once there, she found a room where her friend also lived. And then she started her new job working in one of the government’s many typing pools. As she told me her story, it was like we both landed back in time. Her face seemed brighter, her eyes sparkled and I’m sure she felt like the young woman again. I could see in her that Oklahoma girl, recently graduated from high school, leaving behind her parents and siblings, off to new experiences. Clearly, Mary was bit astonished by her youthful spirit. “Can you imagine that? a young girl like me, going off to Washington by herself,” she said again almost as if trying to convince herself that it had actually happened.

I agreed that it was a very bold and adventurous thing for her to have done, but it was wartime after all, and people of that era did many bold things that they never thought they would.

We moved into the camera study. I seated Mary in a chair, careful not to bump her sore foot. I arranged her in a way that would work for the pictures but that would also be comfortable for her as it would be difficult to shift her around during our session. She appeared relaxed and ready to start. I began by taking images of the entire family. I worked quickly not wanting Mary to tire. After finishing those images, her son-in-law departed, his part of the photo session completed. Her daughters went to change for some additional images of just the two of them with their Mom. Mary stayed put in the chair. It was just the two of us in the camera study.

“How about we do some just of you?” I suggested while we waited. I knew that the daughters also wanted a portrait of their mother alone.

Working in the studio with Mary was a delight. She told me about her adventures as a young woman.
Working in the studio with Mary was a delight. She told me about her adventures as a young woman.

She agreed. I asked her to lean against the arm of the chair. She did. Then the magic happened. Without any direction, Mary became a model before the camera re-positioning her hands, tilting her head (I may have asked her to do that), striking a pose that I imagined she either remembered from a time gone by or had seen once in a magazine. Years came off and back. Mary clearly was enjoying being the center of my camera’s attention as much as I was enjoying photographing her. Her smile broadened and once again I saw that twinkle in her eyes, the young woman from Oklahoma headed out on her own. Who did she have in head? Some of the ‘glamour girls’ from the 1940s? I mused. Or maybe just the younger version of herself.

When the session was over I asked if the girls and their mother were planning to go to dinner since they were all dressed so festively. They hadn’t planned on it, but now that I mentioned it, the daughters agreed it would be a good idea. Off they went.

Later, one of her daughters told me how much they all had enjoyed the experience. “You know, my Mom was so anxious about it,” she said. “and I really didn’t know how she would do. But she had a wonderful time.”

I was surprised to learn she had been so anxious but pleased that she at felt at ease with me. I had made a new friend in Mary. I felt she had shared with me some precious memories and allowed me to see her in another light. And I was grateful. Now, whenever I speak to her daughter on the phone, I always ask about her mother and to please relay my best. Our connection was brief, but it was a connection. I hope Mary had a Happy Mother’s Day.