The secret of time travel is a matter of mind over time. Studying a photograph, I wing through time like Wendy and Peter Pan, flying backward through the century against a headwind to find a lost family. I reach out my arms through the decades to embrace my mother, aunt and grandmother on a spring day in 1912.
My mother, Thelma, her sister, Winola, and my grandmother Mamie Gertrude Newbrough Taylor, gaze out from a photograph taken nearly a hundred years ago at a photography studio in Des Moines, Iowa. My mother’s face hints at a smile. Large white ribbons adorn her hair, parted straight down the middle and pulled to the side in tight braids. It is too bad you cannot see the color of my mother’s eyes, a deep violet blue. I looked into them the day she died, still a blue purple like the purple mountains majesty of the song.
In the picture, Thelma is holding a book open as if her mother had been reading to her. Her pudgy child hands hold the book flat. Winola stands on the other side of her mother, leaning toward her with her arms around Mamie Gertrude’s shoulders and staring at the camera. A part, straight as a razor’s edge, down the middle of her head separates her hair into braids tied with large white ribbons like her sister’s hair. She wears a ghost of a smile, not even as much as Thelma’s slight smile. Perhaps the photographer is saying, “Look at the camera. Hold still. Smile for goodness sakes.”
If so, Mamie Gertrude does not respond. She sits straight and tall in her sheer frilly white blouse gazing, not into the camera like her daughters, but a little to the side. She is lovely, soft looking and very young. Her hair, in gentle brown waves, frames her face. Maybe she is reflecting on the difficult morning they had. I know that she had been visiting her girls and that she was preparing to leave shortly after the photo session to return to her job at a hotel in Nebraska. My mother told me that she and Winola had been crying all morning. Maybe they cried because their mother was leaving or perhaps because their tight braids hurt their heads. Possibly, their mother longs to hold and cuddle her two little girls but she knows that gesture will make it harder for them to return to their father, so she makes an effort to be strong and brave.
I can almost hear Mamie Gertrude saying, “Now sit still while I braid your hair. Quit wiggling. We are going to look beautiful for our picture.”
“Now,” she says, “We don’t want you to look like you were crying in the picture, do we? Come on, and be my big girls. Stop your crying. Thelma, you sit here and help me hold the book. Come on, honey. We’ll pretend we were reading and just happened to look up.”
“Winola, dear,” she speaks to her eldest daughter. “You are the oldest so you stand here next to your mama. Here, put your arm across my neck on my shoulder. Now, stop fussing about your hair girls. Look into the camera.”
The photographer takes the picture, preserving them forever at five and seven years old, and their mother in her early twenties, looking forward to their future with hope, expectation and determination. The expression on my grandmother’s young face suggests forbearance and serenity.
Perhaps the morning scene began this way. “Mamie Gertrude, I see the buggy coming up the road. Your girls are almost here. Time for you to get down stairs to meet them. Your breakfast is ready, too,” Viola called up the stairs to her daughter.
As Mamie Gertrude felt the back of her neck for the clasp to her gold cross necklace, her hand brushed against loose stray hairs. “Darn. Now I have to re-do my hair,” she said to herself. She chewed her bottom lip as she pulled, pushed and re-pinned her fine brown hair off her neck. As she pinched her cheeks and gave her sheer, frilly blouse another tuck into her long black skirt, she heard her mother call again.
“Mamie Gertrude! They are here. Oh, look at those darling girls!” her mother’s voice carried up the stairway.
At the bottom of the stairs, Mamie Gertrude came face to face with her former husband. They exchanged quick, nervous glances. “The girls are here, Mamie Gertrude. I will be back to pick them up this afternoon. They are wearing their best white dresses for your picture taking this morning,” Myrah Taylor said to his young, pretty, former wife.
After Myrah left, Mamie Gertrude walked down the hallway to the kitchen, her high-heeled laced boots clacking with each step. The smell of bacon, toast, and coffee filled the hallway making her mouth water.
The two little girls sat at the kitchen table eating the breakfast their grandmother served. “Look, Mamie Gertrude. They remind me of you and Virginia when you were little,” Viola said. Viola’s garden hat lay on the counter and her parrot perched on her shoulder. Maybe Mamie Gertrude tripped over a cat or two and accidentally stepped on a dog’s tail.
“Mother, can’t you keep all these animals out of the kitchen?” she asked.
“No, and I don’t want to. I love my animals. Come here and eat,” Viola commanded.
“Hi, Mama,” Winola and Thelma looked at Mamie Gertrude through their long, loose hair.
“Oh, no! Look at your hair. What was he thinking?” Mamie Gertrude hurried back upstairs and returned with combs, brushes, pins and four large ribbons.
She started combing Winola’s hair, brushing then parting her hair straight down the middle with an edge of a comb, sharp as a table knife. Then she braided each side, pulling it tight and neat before attaching the bows. Winola squirmed and squealed that it hurt while Thelma only whimpered when it was her turn. The girls were at the mercy of their mother’s quick hands.
“There, that’s better,” Mamie Gertrude surveyed her two tearful daughters.
Traveling on the air stream of time to that family, I soar past the end of the Cold War in the 1990’s. I pause in 1986 to collect seven-year-old Meredith, eleven-year-old Danna and forty-one year old me. I grab a casual black and white snapshot of my two daughters and me taken seventy-four years after the formal studio picture of Thelma, Winola and Mamie Gertrude. I want to show the other mother and daughters the marked family resemblances between the two photographs.
Flying into the ‘70’s we observe Meredith and Danna’s births, the Watergate scandals and the first test tube baby the year Meredith was conceived, and a young me waterskiing at Lake Powell. In the ‘60’s, we pause to acknowledge my wedding to in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. We witness both my college and high school graduations. In the ‘50’s, we give a nod to my childhood, Sputnik, Hillary and Norgay’s conquest of Mt. Everest that I read about in a Weekly Reader, and the end of World War II in a treat with Japan in 1951. We hear the wailing, sobbing and weeping of human despair in the ‘40’s and see the hopelessness of desperate people in the depression and dust bowl of the‘30’s. Music, laughter and amusement of a generation seeking to recover from the dreadfulness of World War I echo through the ‘20’s. By the time we arrive at the teens, even though we are close, we cannot reach 1912 without struggling our way through the great flu epidemic and the ache and torment of World War I.
Once I am in that photography studio, I encircle Thelma, Winola, Mamie Gertrude, Meredith, Danna and forty-one year old me in an all encompassing embrace in the splendor of shining love. I feel the warmth of their breath on my neck and pat their smoothed down hair. I touch their chubby cheeks. I tell Mamie Gertrude and 41 year old me that you will do well, to feel safe, secure and to have faith in yourself and the future. I ask Mamie Gertrude why her mother or Myrah’s mother or their siblings do not offer more care and love for her and her two little daughters. I whisper to Thelma and Meredith that they are adorable and beloved. To Winola and Danna, I confess that there are times when I look at Danna and feel confusion. Even though I know Danna is not Winola, there is a telltale sign in her coloring, in her strength of character, spirit and in her mannerisms, a gesture here or a movement there, to recall Winola to me, especially if I catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye.
I ask Thelma and Winola to tell me what happened that day of the photograph. I listen to their girlish voices talking, laughing and interrupting one another. I kiss them on their warm, soft foreheads, whiff their clean child scent, and assure them of my eternal love.
Finally, I open my all-endearing embrace. Mamie Gertrude will return to work at the hotel. Thelma and Winola will go with their father when he comes to get them.
Danna, Meredith and forty-one year old I will glide back through the decades, this time drifting with time’s current. I leave my daughters and me in 1986. Then I return, alone, to my desk on a bitterly cold January afternoon where a cup of hot tea is at hand and tears slip down my cheeks because I am grieving their loss. The photographs move me to tears because the faces are young, comely, and eager. They are sweet, childish and innocent with a life yet to live that now has ended. I am weeping because of our transitory time on earth.