Saturday, March 8, 2014


Last week I went to GA to visit Mom.  She's still doing pretty good health-wise.  Every time I go visit she has a little more trouble walking around and she has a little more trouble hearing.  It's gotten to the point where I have to repeat myself several times every time I call her on the phone, so it feels more important to go visit more often.  I can't easily just talk to her on our daily phone calls, if she has no context to guess what I'm saying and it's unexpected, sometimes she never does understand me and it's just painful and frustrating for both of us. 

We had a nice visit.  We went to IHOP and Mom got her usual: the senior special with one pancake (strawberries on top but hold the whipped cream), one egg over medium, and one piece of bacon extra crispy.  She always eats it all, too, which is unusual for her.  She doesn't go out very often anymore.  My brother and his wife and my sister met us for lunch there.

The way Mom looked at my brother really touched me.  She looked up at him like seeing him made her purely joyful, and she clasped one hand in both of hers and just smiled at him.  Now that I think of it, I guess she looked at me like that too, when I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday.  (We'll assume she looked at my sister similarly even though I didn't notice the moment.)

My sister is primarily in charge of Mom's finances, paying her bills online and keeping track of her checking account.  I don't have access to the checking account, but I'm in charge of her mutual fund, which is what remains of her (and Dad's) life savings.  Based on my math she has enough money for about another year of rent payments at the assisted living home, and then I have no idea what will happen.  I need for someone to tell me exactly how things will go and how long she'll live and what her health will be like and then I can make all the right plans and decisions.  I'm trying very hard not to be consumed with dread about it.  I just love her so much and I want so badly to make her happy and make sure every single thing is taken care of for her.

I feel so far away.

Mom actually has money coming to her from the VA, but the forms my brother and sister filed last January still haven't been processed.  If that comes through it'll help, especially if there is retroactive money from when it should have started a year ago.  The VA is notoriously behind, though. 

I'm from a very rural county in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, and recently someone started a Facebook page to share old photos from there.  I'm amazed and fascinated by the photos people are sharing.  I've seen beautiful landscapes from as early as the 1800s, photos of old homes and barns and schools and churches.  Some are not areas or people I'm familiar with, but even still they are interesting to see.

But then a woman posted some photos that just floored me.  She is apparently a descendent of a schoolteacher (and amateur photographer) at the small wooden schoolhouse near my father's family's house.  It was very unusual to even own a camera, and this guy seems to have taken photos of area families and children.  He even saved the negatives, so he clearly took it very seriously.

These pictures are from before my father was born in 1915, I'm going to guess they're from around 1912 or 1913.  I have never seen photos of these relatives as children until now.

This is my aunt Mamie Sue, the oldest of the children.  She was the opposite of my mother; she was not sweet, comforting, or nurturing.  In my memory she was pretty severe, one of those women who would describe themselves as not willing to put up with any foolishness.  She was not unkind, at least to me, and I liked her but I was always a bit afraid of her, too.

This is Ralph and Kathleen.  I have never seen a photo of Ralph, although I'm sure some others must have been taken.  Are these the only ones that still exist?  He was killed at 18 in a coal mine.  My mother never met him, he was already gone when she met my Dad.  I can't get over this photo.  What a cute little face he has.  These photos must have been a big deal to the family, photos were so very rare.  I imagine their mother despairing over her lack of control over his hair.  Mom told me that she made all their clothes, I'm sure they are all dressed in their finest for the occasion.

Baby Kathleen is the only one who still survives, and she turned 100 last year.  Everyone calls her Hun, I have to say I am one of the few who know her given name.  Hun (short for honey, not like Attila) is to this day a very outgoing, friendly, social, flirty woman. 

Greg, going up to her at my father's funeral:  Mrs Hun, I'm Greg, Ellen's husband.
Aunt Hun (grabbing his hand): Oh, Greg!  Of course I remember you! 
And they walked off without me.

She has made arrangements at the family cemetery to have her fictional birth year engraved on her headstone.  (Why honey, she said on her 50th wedding anniversary when they tried to throw a party, you can't tell anyone I've been married for 50 years, there are people who think I'm barely 50 years old right now!)  They tried to make a big deal over her 100th birthday, but she wasn't having that either.  The local news even came by and filmed her surrounded by family on her big front porch, and she laughed and flirted with the reporter and refused to admit her age.

Aunt Mamie Sue looks a little less cranky in this one.  The other girl is my Aunt Cleo, who never married and was an independent career woman, living alone and supporting herself.  She went to nursing college and spent her life working in VA hospitals.  She had retired and lived next door to us when I grew up, and I was closest to her than any of Dad's other siblings.  She was very smart and looking back on it with an adult perspective I can appreciate how much she liked me.  Before he passed away Dad gave me her watch, which was a very pretty and sturdy pocket watch that she used for decades the hospital.

Look at Ralph, sitting like a prince in the little chair, his feet not quite touching the floor.  I love their black leggings and their scuffy shoes and their fancy clothes.  What must their lives have been like, living on the farm, only rarely going into town, no television or computer or car.

I miss Dad a lot, I think about him frequently, and it is purely painful that I can't show him these pictures and ask him to tell me details about their lives and about his childhood.


  1. I'm glad to see you. I miss you when you're silent. We are having such a similar experience with our moms. Our dads too. I think we're lucky to be able to share this hard journey with siblings.

    1. I'm sorry I've been silent lately. I read your blog faithfully, though, and your latest entry about the orchids was wonderful. I love that red scarf that you wear so often in photos. Do you wear it that often in general, or are you just more likely to allow your photo because it makes you feel pretty to wear it? It's very becoming.

      Honestly, I am very glad to be able to share this hard journey with you.

  2. And the photos are brilliant! So much life and personality in them at a time when most people stared dour faced at the camera. Those photos have their art too, but the liveliness and mischief and sort of exuberance in these children's faces captivates.

    1. That's so true, they really do look alive, don't they? Oh, I love these photos so much. The idea that they were out there all these years and no one in the family saw them is so tragic. I love the modern digital era of photographing every single damn thing and sharing it immediately with every damn body. Never too many photos, never too much sharing.

  3. Hi Ellen, I hopped over here from Angela's blog. Happy Birthday!
    I've been reading backwards through some of your posts and this one gobsmacked me. I'm as intrigued and heartbroken over old photographs of my family no one is left to tell me about, and still missing/grieving the loss of my Dad 6 years on now. I'd like to say it gets easier, but it only gets different. Watching my Mom's health deteriorate and her life remain so off kilter in widow-hood from afar has been very difficult for me as well.
    I became geneaology obsessed a few years before Dad died, and managed to collect some stories and a very few photographs. I love your photos in this post, the child pictures are the most bittersweet for me. Do you ever poke around in antique stores looking at the old photos, wondering about the stories? I know an author who has made very successful books doing just that. I can never get past the wondering stage into the writing stage. And even with my own family, what little I do know, the words never come out right.

    Anyway, nice to meet you, and if I've already met you a few years back and can't remember, apologies, My memory went to hell in a handbasket after 50 and I read way too many blogs.

    I wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post, the pictures and the memories it flooded me with. I wrote this post 4 years ago about a similar old photo in case you want to take a look:
    In my fantasy world, or in my dreams, I can travel back in time and talk to the people in those pictures and catch their stories and write them down so they are never lost.

    1. Hi Mel! I'm so glad you are here!

      Thanks for sharing your lovely blog post with me. I know exactly what you mean about looking at strange old photos and wondering.

      I have such trouble finding the right words, too. I often feel like I don't know what to say, ever. And this kind of family history is so important, so vital.

      Thanks for being here and for reading my attempt at finding the right words, or close to them. If you are enjoying my attempt, I am glad!


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