Favorite Photo: Hidden Treasure

This week’s #52Ancestors blog post prompt is “Favorite Photo.” Photographs themselves offer such a perfect glimpse of the past (or sometimes an imperfect and mysterious glimpse) that it is difficult to select favorites. If forced to choose, I would have to say my favorite photo is that of Rita Blanche Wilson, which intrigued me from a very early age, but I’ve already written about that photo here. A close second, though, is an image I had never seen and didn’t know existed until I was 24 years old.

That year, before moving from Idaho to Virginia, I helped my dad and a number of aunts and uncles as we prepared to clean out my grandparents’ house. It was sad to say good-bye to that old house, but I managed to find and save a number of treasures: the old skeleton key from the back door; a piece of white-painted clapboard; the broken pieces of the necklace my grandmother wore on her wedding day; the poster of a boy, his collie, and a train that my dad remembered from his childhood.

But one of the most surprising discoveries came when my dad was removing the washer and dryer from the laundry alcove in the kitchen. There, fallen behind them and unseen for who knows how many years, was a family photograph. It is a beautiful photograph, and remarkably undamaged after all those years behind the washer. Dad handed it to me and confirmed, as I suspected, that the young girl in the back row was, in fact, my grandmother, Blanche Agnes Wilson.

Carl Ozro and Sophie Wilson with Children

The Wilson family was not a wealthy one, so there are not a large number of photographs of them. And none of them depict my grandmother at this time period – there are baby photos, and her confirmation photos at age eighteen, but none of this in-between time, which makes this glimpse of Grandma in her pristine white dress and huge hair bow all the more fascinating. What was she thinking here as she looked down at the book her sister was holding? Was the strain already evident in her parents’ marriage? Was there sorrow still over the two brothers she had lost, one the year after she was born, and one perhaps two years before this photo was taken? There is no way now of knowing these things. But the facts that we do know are these….

The photograph was taken at Wilson’s Studio in Albion, Nebraska. Whether or not the studio was owned by a relative of the Wilson family, I do not know. Captured here in the photo are Carl Ozro Wilson, his wife Sophie Christine (Roberg) Wilson, and five of their eventual ten children, including Blanche, their second child. Their eldest, Anders Clarence, had died of “cholera infantum” on his second birthday, when my grandmother was eight months old. The other children in the photo are Ozro Willie, Pearl Jeanette, Clarence Salmer, and Mildred Genevieve. Woodrow Wilson, born between Clarence and Mildred, lived only two days in the summer of 1917, dying of colic.

Baby Mildred was born in April 1919. I would assume this might have been taken toward the end of that year, though I’m not very good at guessing babies’ ages. If correct, that would make Clarence four, Pearl seven, Ozro eight, and Grandma eleven. I can’t help but wonder if, having lost two baby sons, Sophie and Carl made a point of capturing this family image soon after their next baby was born. I wonder, too, if Sophie’s father, Anders Roberg, could have played a part. Stories tell of Anders purchasing the matching dresses for Blanche and her cousin Martha seen in their confirmation photo taken in 1926. Could he have encouraged (or paid for?) this family photograph as well? By 1915 the family had moved from my grandma’s native Nebraska to Wood, South Dakota, some 200 miles from Albion, but Anders lived in Newman Grove, Nebraska, only 15 miles from Wilson’s Studio.

Whatever the reason or the circumstances, I am grateful to have this photo and its window into the life of my grandmother as a young girl. And grateful for the hidden treasure in the laundry room.

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