Deciphering the Past One Family Hero at a Time

I’m not sure what came first the story about this picture or finding the image in my family photos. The two are intertwined in my mind seamlessly joined.

This faded color photo depicts my grandmother on her 75th birthday. My mother, her daughter-in-law, made her a cake and threw her a small party. I was there. As soon as Gramma saw the cake, she started crying. It was her first birthday cake and party. It amazed us all.   As a child, I couldn’t believe that this elderly woman who I loved dearly had never had a cake or a party. Later I asked my mother why. She told me that my great-grandmother was really mean and took it out on my quiet sweet Nana. It was inconceivable to me for this woman to be unloved.

Eliza Jane Wilson celebrating her birthday.

To this day, the reality of that moment sticks with me.  

I remember asking her about her family but she always dodged the questions by talking about my grandfather’s family. My mother’s statements made me want to know more. Why was her mother so mean? Why was she so uncared for?

It’s pictures and stories like this that spur an interest in family history. As the Photo Detective, you can’t have one without the other. Images are storytellers.

It seemed impossible to locate more information about her ancestors. My father never mentioned them. He hadn’t talked to her about them either. I’m still not sure why Gramma confided in my mother.

Years passed. Mom decided to help me search. A teen couldn’t go to an archive unaccompanied. What we discovered was a surprise to both of us. My great-grandmother had another marriage as a teen, a child who died and then she met my great grandfather. She was harsh with her daughters so they wouldn’t make her mistake. She’d said something like that to my mother once, but it was just a passing statement without context.

Memory Keepers

It’s not just pictures that act as memory prompts. Sometimes it’s ordinary things that a person used that trigger feelings.

When cleaning out my mother’s house, I discovered an old washboard in the basement. Suddenly memories of my grandmother came to my mind. My Dad must have saved his mother’s washboard. There is nothing special about this artifact. It has little monetary value, but I imagine that my Dad remembered his mother using it. I do too.

As a small child, I’d watch her take out a washtub, add soap and hot water, dunk clothes and rub them against the rippled glass surface. She’d repeat the process until all the clothes were washed. Then she wrung them out and hung them on the clothesline out her third-floor apartment window. It was something she used to do several times a week. No Laundromats or electric washing machine for her, she preferred to do her washing the way she’d been taught. By hand.

It’s funny the things you remember about a person. The everyday routines trump extraordinary feats every time. Her favorite things were sarsaparilla (a type of root beer) and her parakeet.

The pictures I own of her seem bland compared to her in person.

Eliza Jane Wilson
Eliza Jane Wilson, circa 1896

She’s a small child in one and in her sixties in the other. Her light blue eyes dominate the picture. She always wore her long hair up in a net. It was pure white but as long as it was when she was a girl.

An Old Fashioned Life

She was an old-fashioned woman. Born in 1892, she grew up in a world where women generally didn’t drive, cars were new fangled contraptions and many of the modern conveniences of telephones and television were not part of her childhood. For the most part, time stood still in that apartment. My father introduced her to contemporary conveniences often against her will.

  • Her apartment had cold water (until my father insisted he install a hot water faucet).
  • She heated bath water in big kettles on the stove and carried them to the tub like she’d done all her life.
  • She cooked without benefit of cookbooks. There was no need. She knew her favorites by heart.
  • To go from place to place she took the bus. She never owned a car or had a license. We took her on weekly drives to revisit places she’d lived. Our course directed by her.

My first conscious memories of her were of her as an older woman. She seemed ancient. Yet I’m almost the age she was then.

We lived on the second floor. She lived on the third with her eldest daughter Dot, and often her son Sam. My sister and I only had to run upstairs to visit.

Sometimes she babysat. Gramma let us play with old mill spindles wound with brightly colored silk thread, remnants from someone’s employment in a factory. We didn’t know whom. With some encouragement, we could get her to leave her “parlor” perch to sit in the kitchen and color. Her favorite coloring crayon was “yella.” I’m not sure of the source of her slight accent. Her family lived in America for generations with the exception of her grandmother Esther. She colored in a small circular pattern, something she learned as a child. No straight lines for her.

For hours every day, she’d sit by the window and look out on the street from her third-floor tenement apartment. When I asked her why she spent hours looking at nothing but an empty street, she said she was remembering all the people that were now gone. One of her daughters lived in Tennessee; another daughter and a son lived in California. Her husband died in 1953.

She rarely spoke unless asked a direct question. Quiet, formal and reserved. She rarely smiled. She wore high boots that buttoned and laced up much like she would have worn in her youth. She never left the house without a hat. She let me play with her hatpins from an earlier era.

Every birthday or holiday she gave my sister and I a card with a handkerchief inside. I still have them today.

A sudden stroke took us by surprise. She was 75, just months after that emotional birthday. At her funeral, we met her remaining family–two sisters and a brother. It was odd that she never saw them even though they all lived in the same town just a few minutes apart. They kept to their families and she to hers.

Her life was so different than ours. We saw my mother’s family all the time for trips to the movies, drop in dinners and just to chat. As an adult, I’ve come to understand that my grandmother was lonely. It wasn’t something that happened overnight. I’m still trying to pull all the facts of her life together to understand her past and by extension my own. As the family genealogist, I try to put together the story of ancestral lives. You can too. Understand this:

All families have secrets.

The few pictures I have of her don’t share those hidden bits, but the documentation reveals details of the timeless tales of young love, broken hearts and early death. There was so much sadness in her life and in her mother and father’s families that she couldn’t talk with a child about it all. Her family was broken through a series of circumstances that drew them apart rather than together. And so she sat and reminisced.

The Reckoning of the Past Continues

I recently met three of my grandmother’s nieces. The daughters of her older sister still live in town. They told me a story about my grandmother that seemed like they were talking about a different woman. According to the trio, she looked so much like her sister Jeanette that they’d play tricks on people and make them think they were the same person until caught red-handed together. Her nieces still laugh about those moments. The woman I knew rarely laughed.

She smiled sometimes. Gramma was like a little kid at an amusement park. No roller coasters for her. She loved the carousel. She’d ride over and over with us by her side, a slight smile on her face. While the amusement park we visited is long gone, the town retained the carousel. It’s still there waiting for new families to make memories.

Recognizing the Heroes

My grandmother, Eliza Jane Wilson, never talk about her early life and now I know why. Her mother, father, and grand-parents had lived through a series of tragedies. Her sadness wasn’t peculiar to her. It was generational.

The heroes in our families don’t have to be lifesavers but those with the courage to endure adversity.

  • Her father died suddenly when she was 18. She hated her mother and jumped into marriage with my grandfather soon after.
  • She had five children. She never worked outside the house enabling Gramma to live her life in the past.
  • World War II changed her family. Three of her children sought opportunities elsewhere. She rarely saw them. My Dad was her caretaker.
  • When babysitting her oldest grandchild, he died of whooping cough.
  • She outlived her husband by fifteen years.

Questions Not Asked

It’s the unasked questions that haunt family historians, myself included. The extra minutes we could have spent chatting about daily activities and people our ancestors once knew.

For this woman the list of things I wished I’d asked is endless, but I’d start with the birthday cake and her love of the “dobby” horses.

Here’s what you can do today.

Take out your pictures, show them to family and see what memories pop into the conversation.

Don’t wait for the right moment or set an agenda.  There never will be the perfect time. Don’t procrastinate. Time’s a wasting. Just let the conversation flow from one picture to another. You may not get another chance.