When I was up in Seattle last week, I asked one of my aunts for old family photos to scan into my computer and share with the rest of the family. We spent several hours going through her old photo albums, and I came home with a small handful of photos. Among them were three of my mother when she was very young.
My mom, Mary Kathryn Mead, was born in Ellensburg, Washington in February 1919. She lived only until she was 53 years old, dying of a very nasty metastized lung cancer. (Yes, she smoked). I am now nine years older than she was when she died, and of course, that thought certainly gives me pause.
My mom was a hard person to know, at least by her children. She was very very beautiful, and, from our perspective, pious, cold and judgmental. None of the four of us sibs have a lot of positive memories of her, something that upsets her brothers and sisters who were close to her and found her lovely, warm and loveable. All I can say is that I speak from my own experience and the fact that my brother and two sisters have similar feelings validates my memories.
In any case, it was very odd to see these three photos of Mom when she was very young and vulnerable-looking. My grandparents' house burned down in 1956, and most family photos were lost in that fire. So I'd never seen these photos before and had no idea what my mother looked like as a very young child. Her childlike demeanor is completely mysterious to me. She never told us any stories from when she was little, maintaining that she had absolutely no memories of her childhood. I've often wondered if she had been resentful of her baby brother when he came along, and then, when he died, felt guilty and ashamed for having had negative thoughts about him, and consequently pulled back from the family
In the first photo, shot in April 1921, Mom has just turned two. She is the second child from the right, flanked on one side by her first cousin Jimmy Mundy who was wearing overalls, and on the other, her baby brother Billy who did not live long enough to reach his second birthday. Jimmy was her same age, give or take a few weeks. He lived next door, and they were very close their entire lives. They died just a few weeks apart, too, both from lung cancer. They probably learned to smoke at the same time, sneaking cigarettes down to the grainary, according to family legend.
The other kids are somewhat more remote cousins, and the big boy at the left is Charles Suver, who grew up to be a Jesuit priest. He became famous during World War II when he was a military chaplain in the U.S. Marine Corps. He celebrated the first mass atop Mt. Suribachi right at the point where the flag was raised atop Iwo Jima,and I can recall seeing a photo of that mass in my history book. One of the three older girl cousins in the photo became a Good Shepherd nun.
I notice that Mom is looking down, maybe from shyness or perhaps because she got bored waiting so long for the photo to be taken. It's evidently some sort of dress-up occasion--maybe Easter--if the large bows in the big girls' hair are any indication. Mom is wearing what might be a white pinafore over a darker dress, and long dark stockings, with high-button shoes. The photo is shot right outside my grandparents' house, in front of their bedroom window.
The next photo was taken in June 1924. Again Mom's with her cousin Charles Suver. Her baby brother had by now died of diptheria and the new baby in the high chair is her sister Doris, who grew up to be my favorite aunt. There's also a dog in the photo, but there's no one left in the family who can still remember the dog's name. In the far distance is the barn, which is still standing, and which I photographed in June on my previous trip to the Northwest. The giant wall of lilacs that I remember so well at my grandparents' were either not yet planted, or hadn't grown very tall. Again I see Mom looking down rather than at the photographer. I wonder just how shy she may have been? Her hair is cut in what was then known as a "Dutch bob." When I started school, a few girls still had their hair cut this way, but it was a style that definitely was on the way out.
The last of the three photos was shot in October 1924. Mom is standing between her grandparents, Rose Becker and Charles W. Suver. Again she has her head down, but at least she's peeking up at the photographer. Maybe she's on the verge of saying something.
My great-grandmother looks very elegant in a dress that was anachronistically long for the era. Possibly she was going to some fancy-dress event. In any case, that's by far the most elegant outfit I ever saw her wear. Doris is looking at the photograher with great curiosity. It's possible to see a little bit of the same fence behind everyrone that also showed up in the previous photo. So I can tell that this was also shot on the farm in Ellensburg.
These would be just about the only photos I've ever seen of my mother as a child. I find that odd, given that there are many many photos of my dad and his family from that same era, and Dad's immigrant family was in much more severe economic circumstances than my mom's family. But then, the fire did wipe out a big hunk of family possessions, photos included.