Should I Display This Photo?

A few days ago I wrote about all the strange emotions I felt when I saw the first photo of my mother as a child. I showed the picture before, but I’ll show it here again.

Ruthy MericaAfter editing the photo to remove some of the shadow and enlarging the portion where my mother is visible I was overwhelmed with feeling. I felt the thrill of discovery because after resigning myself years ago to never seeing an image of her as anything younger than 22 or 23, I found her in the shadows of a photo of my Aunt Ola I’ve had all along. I felt joy that I finally knew what she looked like. Disappointment that she was veiled in shadow and I could barely make out her features. Confirmation that she was the same brunette beauty I’d seen in later photos of her. Delight that she looked like a happy, spunky little girl. And a twinge of shame at seeing her in a smudged and ill-fitting dress. I tried hard to fight off that feeling, but there it was. It overtook me before my rational side could jump in and block it. So I can toss in the feeling of disappointment at myself for that rush to judgement.

The shame went against everything I thought I knew about myself, that I observe objectively and do not judge irrationally or without considering varied facts. (I infuriate friends for refusing to take sides.) But the dirty dress went against everything I thought I knew about my mother’s family. Would I have to rethink it all?

I’ve always heard about the clockwork routine they lived to. The chores her parents expected the kids to do every morning. The hearty and complete meals that were laid out three times a day for this farm family of 12. Wash day was every Monday and ironing every Tuesday. Her mother did all that, but each Saturday the whole family pitched in around the farm. My mother’s job was to clean the upstairs. Every Saturday she scrubbed the floors, washed the basins and windows, dusted, and tidied up. Her little sister had the job of cleaning the downstairs, but since she was three years younger her mother helped her.  Then Sundays were for church and a big supper, the table laden with roast chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans or peas, rolls, and if they were lucky, a berry pie or coconut cake.

Such disciplined routine typically means a clean and orderly household. The oldest child, my Aunt Ola, 13 years my mother’s elder, was fastidious to the point of obsession. No dirt dared enter her spotless house. And no grime dared step foot on her property. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear she washed the tire treads of her car after every trip to the store. Yet there was my mother in a photo of Ola and her tidy baby boy, with my mother looking like Pigpen from the Charley Brown cartoons. Of course, it’s easy for me to justify the way she looks in the photo. Maybe it’s Saturday and she just finished washing the floors. Maybe it’s a warm spring day and she’s been hoeing rows with her mother in the garden. Or a hot summer day and she’s been playing hide and seek with her Comer cousins down at the bend. Or she’s just back from the swimming hole. The kids swam clothes and all, and this would be a perfect swim dress.

It’s easy to justify a kid being dirty. But they’re not usually photographed that way. If we know a photographer will be present we dress our children to reflect well on ourselves. And if a photo turns out less than flattering we tear it up. It’s a small manipulation of reality that helps us shape the image we want to show to the world.  We take photos. We look at them and sort them, throwing out the bad ones, keeping the good ones, and choosing the great ones to display in frames. Or these days, as our home screens or screen savers. That is acceptable and normal behavior. All good, right?

Yet here I am with the only photo of my mother being one I bet her mother would not have wanted to last 84 years, as it has so far. As the only photo I have of her, I love it. And that pretty face and hair I recognize? I adore it. Pulling wider to show her leaning into the photo from over the porch rail? It makes me smile to see this joyous, impish girl who so wants to charm the camera. Even the composition of the photo is great, all angles and squares with the porch posts, house siding, chair back spindles, window frame, and my mother’s checked dress. Quite artistic. These things make me happy. Then I zero in on the dress and suddenly my emotions become very mixed. I don’t like the sour shame that creeps into my warm soup of emotions. Again, it’s easy to justify a dirty kid. But photos worthy of display can’t come with attached captions that explain the circumstances.

I sent the photo to a photo restorer and got back an improved version where some of the shadows were removed from my mother’s face and dress. It was now slightly improved, but still nothing I considered mantle-worthy. Here’s the cleaned-up version:

Ruthy_Merica_c.1930Her mother, my grandmother, would not want to display the photo. Aunt Ola wouldn’t either. And my mother would certainly have thrown it away. But it’s the only one I have.

Should I display the photo?

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21 Responses to Should I Display This Photo?

  1. pmm says:

    If you love it, display it. It is a tie to the past, and no one can fault you for wanting that connection and having the emotional reaction you have for it. Your mother wasn’t the primary interest of the photo- she just happened to be there, and is just adorable. She would have been spit-polished if she had been the photo subject. I like the candid moment of real life in this photo, and hope that you can enjoy that aspect. You are looking at the small things again, and missing out on the big joy…

    • Mulberrygrrl says:

      You’re right. The more I look at it, the more I love it, and the more comfortable I am with it. But I know my mother wouldn’t approve, let alone my grandmother and Aunt Ola. She would crinkle up a worried but loving look and say, “I don’t understand you Californians.” My mother wouldn’t want that memory of herself. She and I are different. I would look at such a photo of myself and think, “Oh, what fun I had climbing through the brush with my dogs, digging in the garden with Mom, and being with my friends throwing ice plant apples at each other. If I wasn’t dirty, I hadn’t had enough fun yet.” I would display it proudly, maybe even defiantly, since I enjoy ruffling the norms. But my mom always presented a more polished picture, both figuratively and literally (until she became quite ill, but that’s a different story.) She was unequivocal, whereas I often, as you point out, over-think things.

      I think I’ll put it on my dresser, out of public view. That way I am not publicly disrespecting the family. I think they’d all approve of that.

      • Lor says:

        I think you’re wrong about your mother not wanting you to display it. Hope that doesn’t sound too rude but I was thinking if your mother knew how important the photo was to you and your feelings about it she would be proud to see you cherish it.

        • cynthiaberryman says:

          Thanks for your comment. Many people have said the same thing, so you’re probably right. I think I will display the photo after all.

  2. Caroline says:

    It’s a lovely photo of a happy smiling girl, very natural looking and not particularly posed. Add to that the emotional attachment involved – I would display it with pride.

  3. Caroline says:

    It’s a lovely photo of a happy smiling girl, very natural looking and not particularly posed. Add to that the emotional attachment involved – I would display it with pride.

  4. Meg says:

    Yes! Display it loud and proud! Grandma was a beautiful little girl. Her dress doesn’t even look that dirty. (However it is in black and white.)
    Maybe it wouldn’t live up to their standards, but it’s the only photo you have of her as a child and it’s a great one! There is no reason to feel shame for a child not looking gussied up for a casual photo. I’m sure she would have if she’d intended on being photographed. I just take it as a moment frozen in time (rather than a perfectly executed thing.)
    And to be honest, I doubt if you framed it, even in the living room, that she’d be able to see it. (;

    • Mulberrygrrl says:

      I love thinking of it as a moment frozen in time. I love thinking of her running up the porch stairs and jumping into the picture, smiling for the camera as if it’s aimed only for her.

  5. Meg says:

    Yes! Display it loud and proud! Grandma was a beautiful little girl. Her dress doesn’t even look that dirty. (However it is in black and white.)
    Maybe it wouldn’t live up to their standards, but it’s the only photo you have of her as a child and it’s a great one! There is no reason to feel shame for a child not looking gussied up for a casual photo. I’m sure she would have if she’d intended on being photographed. I just take it as a moment frozen in time (rather than a perfectly executed thing.)
    And to be honest, I doubt if you framed it, even in the living room, that she’d be able to see it. (;

    • Mulberrygrrl says:

      I love thinking of it as a moment frozen in time. I love thinking of her running up the porch stairs and jumping into the picture, smiling for the camera as if it’s aimed only for her.

  6. Patsy Merica Hevener says:

    Yes, you most certainly should display this picture and be proud of it. Just look at the smile on her face. She was happy!!!! We don’t know what she might have been doing but she was a happy girl.

    • cynthiaberryman says:

      Yes, this photo makes me happy. Don’t you love finding something wonderful in an unexpected way?

      • Anonymous says:

        your mother and other ancestors are too busy with other things to worry about a picture on your mantle.

        • cynthiaberryman says:

          Anonymous, I think most of us avoid displaying photos in which we don’t look our best. I’ve thrown away many a photo of myself before anyone else could lay eyes on it! It’s human nature to want to present ourselves in our best light. And plenty of people I know spend more time working on that than anything else; this is the “other things” they’re busy with. Still, I wish it weren’t so – I wish I were too busy with other things to worry about the way I look, or projecting to believe my mother would feel the same way. How much more free time I would have!

  7. Kathleen M.anscill says:

    Your mother’s dress was made at home probably by her mother. In that time and place (for I was there) often our dresses were made a little large so we would not outgrow them so quickly.

    This family was different from many of the families living “on the mountain” notice that the house is painted and that the porch has railings , and you said there was an upstairs. Many of these families lived in log houses or unpainted board and batten structures. You also said your grandparents owned the land of, many did not own and were called “squatters.” Many of the children did not go to school at all.

    There was much unhappiness in the early 1930s in this part of thr Blue Ridge, but Shenandoah National Park is. National treasure.

  8. I love the photo. All the family photos I have of my parents and grandparents as children make them all look very humble — except for the ones that are fancy and taken at a professional studio with velvet draping and potted ferns in the background. The natural pics tell so much more. You are an amazing writer and I am so enjoying your Blue Ridge stories!! I will share this link with all of our Blue Ridge Heritage Project of Page group that is working to build a monument in Page to honor the sacrifices of all the displaced families.

    • cynthiaberryman says:

      Thank you, Rose Ann. I wish I weren’t so far away so I could help out with your Blue Ridge Heritage Project. I’ve been following your progress. Good luck with it!

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