The photos were in boxes in a cabinet under Grandma’s entertainment center. Most were sepia toned or black and white and featured stern or blank pale faces. But there were others, in a leather bound book, with black paper background, that were of smiling faces in Flapper style hair and clothes and suspenders and other early 1900 clothes
Who were these girls in striped leggings, straight bangs, pants and boys shirts, sitting on top of a train caboose, laughing and having fun? Curved letters on the back of the images dated them sometime in the early 20s and the one with the determined, fierce expression, broken only by the hint of a smile on one side of the mouth was Ula Gladwynn Grant, my grandmother, daughter of J Eben and Grace Cranmer Grant.
I was enthralled with the images of Grandma as a teenager, laughing, smiling, looking determined. I wondered what she was thinking in the very moment the button was pressed to capture those images. And who took the images? Cameras weren’t as common back then as they are now. Phones with cameras that you carry in your pocket? It is something that in the 1920s Grandma could have never imagined. My dad thinks my grandmother’s aunt Ivy, may have taken the photos, documented these real moments for future generations. Ivy died young from complications of a kidney disease. I’ve looked at the photographs of her and something about her wry grin and the sparkle in her eyes makes me think she and I would have hit it off.
I wish I’d asked Grandma more about the photots when she was alive. I wish I had asked her who the other girls were, who took her photos and why she was grinning. I wish I had asked her more about Ivy, the woman whose grave is facing a different direction than everyone else at the tiny cemetery behind the church, a sign to me that she was someone who liked to be unique.
Those images of my grandmother revealed someone vastly different than who I grew up with, or at least how I saw her. Somehow I seemed to think Grandma had always been old. She had never been a teenager, laughing with her friends. But these photos showed something completely different. Someone completely different, even though it was my grandmother’s laughter I’d captured with my camera one day when she was 88 that made me realize how much I love to photograph the real moments of life.
Sometimes I wonder if these photos were why I would later find myself desperate to capture the moments of my own families life. Her death was one of the first times I realized how important photographs are and that they can capture the real soul of a person, freeze a memory of that soul long after their body has left the earth.
Those early, faded images of my ancestors showed me there is life to be captured and documented, yes, but also to be lived. I loved that many of the photos featured real expressions, not strained and forced smiles or stiff poses but real life.