Three days ago, the mailman brought a package to the door. Actually, the mailman is a woman, but mailwoman doesn’t sound right.
I knew what the package was; it was something Mama and my sister told me was coming. I didn’t open it right away, though. I watched the still box sitting close to me for most of the day.
Finally, it seemed the right time to break the seal. So I opened it.
Inside was a photo album, wrapped tightly in bubble wrap and more tape than was necessary (we all love using too much tape in my family). And as I pulled back the bubble wrap, a stylish, French-themed, pink and black photo album revealed itself.
The cover of the album is all about style, the word PARIS gilt and in all caps, words like “haute couture” and “Le Bottier de L’ Elegance.” In a word, I’d say the album was “girly,” appropriate for Mama to send to her girls; my sister got one, too.
Mama had already told me what would be in the album in a sort of general way. Photos I’ve never seen before, taken by my great Aunt Sissie. Sissie isn’t her real name, but everyone calls her “Sissie” – she’s my paternal grandmother’s baby sister. Sissie is in her 70’s now, and on her, the nickname, granted her affectionately by her many siblings, doesn’t sound at all inappropriate.
For me and for my own little sister, Sissie is
Sissie, to us, always seemed somewhat exotic. She lived (still lives) all the way west in Midland, Texas and Midland sounded pretty exotic, too, and far away.
The most generous and beautiful soul that ever lived, Sissie was a pal to us kids, a friend, even before we were old enough to go to school. We almost thought of Sissie as a peer, so tuned in was she to little girls. Sissie is still as fabulous and generous and loving as ever; I only use past-tense because I want to talk about Sissie from my view as a little kid.
On Christmas and all major holidays, Sissie was the photographer-in-chief for the family and she had the best cameras you could have – she was always on the cutting edge. Sissie’s flash attachment used those cool, single, clear-blue bulbs. When Sissie took a picture, the clear bulbs would flash, explode on the inside, and once used, they no longer held their cylindrical, shape nor their sharp, blue color. They looked more like storm clouds after they flashed – white, blue, mottled. With flecks of dark blue embedded in the cloudy surface.
When the photo was taken, you could hear the bulb pop. Loudly.
After Sissie took a shot, she’d pop the bulbs out of the silver flash attachment and insert another. We loved these used bulbs; they were like really pretty rocks or jewels. Sissie would let us play with the old bulbs under her watchful eye, but we knew that they’d burn our fingers if we touched them too soon. So we’d wait for those bulbs to cool on the chenille bedspread in my great-grandmother’s front bedroom. Sometimes, we’d touch them too soon and yes, they burned our fingers. But we’d follow along and collect all of the spent bulbs from Sissie’s flash. And play with them.
Sissie always used slide film. Since most of the folks we encountered still used Brownie cameras and the old 110 film, Sissie’s slides were also what we thought of as amazing, cutting edge, etc. The family would gather on occasions and look at Sissie’s slides, all together, during family events when she was probably also taking new pictures as well.
I know we’d especially watch the slide show in the summer time. The one room with the window unit air conditioner would be cool, the folks all lined up to watch the slide show. The room would be dark, and it would feel like nap time. We’d forget the horrid hot sun of our Texas summers for a little while. Christmas was what we watched and remembered, mostly.
The photo album mama sent me was laden with photographs that mama had made from some of Sissie’s slides. Sissie gave my folks some of the slides she had taken that had pictures of me and my little sister in them. Sissie really is the keeper of all the memories from Daddy’s side of the family. She made sure we’d have these memories for a long, long time.
The photos in the album are all from about 1964 through 1969, and as I flipped through the pages, I realized that my view of all my relatives, many now gone, is set
during this particular time frame. The way I think of all these people is just as they are in these photos. I sort of put them in permanent memory storage in my brain as they were when I was little; they never aged.
And strangely enough, when I see my own face from that period of time, I can also jump back in my brain instantly and remember what I was thinking, how I was thinking, and remember so darned much happiness that it almost hurts. What I wouldn't give...
A tomboy, enabled by my farm-born-and-bred grandmother, there are Easter pictures where my little sister’s prancing around in her pretty yellow dress and stiff, white baby shoes. Beside her, I’m in my one-piece coveralls, long-sleeved denim, resembling mattress ticking, my outfit of choice when I was at my grandmother’s farm. Not the easiest garb for going to the bathroom, but the best for being on the farm!
We’d go to the little farm in north Texas (almost to Oklahoma) on most Sundays after church and, though I’d be forced into a dress for church purposes, I always had a sack with my coveralls in them. The minute that the requirement for wearing a dress was past, I’d be hopping into my coveralls. It was always something of a joke in the family, my dislike for dresses. Shoot, I’m still that way. Oh, I can dress to the nines and do my job well, but the minute I walk in the door at home, there goes the dress.
There’s a Christmas shot of me opening a shoebox, filled with four jars of my grandmother’s homemade chow-chow. I can remember opening that gift so clearly. It was the heaviest present I’d gotten that whole Christmas, and I couldn’t imagine what it was as I tore open the paper.
My grandmother wrapped her gifts in floral foil, because her sister-in-law owned the town’s florist shop and my grandmother could get that foil from my great aunt Thelma’s shop. Florist foil almost feels like fabric, and the gifts my grandmother wrapped each Christmas earned the description of “beribboned.”
A whole box of chow-chow. Just for me. Yum. I would eat it straight from the jar, or, using it in the way my grandmother taught me, I’d put a big glob on top of my pinto beans.
Beans. A once-a-week meal, back then. Comfort food for southern girls and boys.
All of those Christmases during my early years, I can remember the houses being just packed, packed
with people. Big, Catholic families, with three and four generations, all gathered in a single house. Cousins, first and second and third; uncles, regular and great; aunts, great and regular. Grandparents, great-grandparents. Children from all side. The photos in my album show that I wasn’t dreaming -- the house really was
full of people.
And in the pictures, my sister and I are fitted in between various relatives. We were the oldest, the first, in our generation, so early on, we're THE center of attention, the center of the photos. My little sister with her curly red hair and red lips and cheeks on various laps and me, hanging with the men, mostly, it seems. Daddy and Uncle David, second cousins like Danny or Ricky or Larry or Thomas.
Bee-hive hairdos on cousins and aunts like Barbara and Thelma and Leona and their girls, Cindy and Janet and Sherry and Chris.
White, flocked Christmas trees. My great grandparents, looking spry and fun, the way I remember them when I conjure them up in my mind. They loved pinochle, and most Sunday nights, my sister and I would play in their living room while mama and daddy and my great grandparents would play pinochle. Or moon or forty-two or regular dominoes.
Another photo of me, pulling my darling grandma in my new red wagon in my own house, right next to the floor furnace – oh, and I so remember my Pa Pa Henry bringing that wagon into the house; it’s seared into my brain. I wore a red outfit that day; I matched my way cool wagon.
My little grandma holding a beer in her hand in a whole lot of shots. My grandma (“Monnie” is what I called her) could out-beer-drink her own sons!
Pictures of me and my daddy, out on the driveway, playing, before my sister ever came around.
Daddy, young and cute.
Mama, looking pretty in a red dress.
Daddy, in a snapped-up red and white western shirt, one not unlike a little shirt I had at the time. Daddy holding my baby sister on his knee.
My Monnie and her daddy, “Grandpa,” smiling together at the pretty face of my baby sister.
My great Uncle Johnny, who, my goodness, was one hot number at the time, so handsome.
Rare, rare photos of me and my baby sister on my paternal grandfather’s knees. He, looking sickly, not too long before his death. He died way too young, in his 50’s, and my Monnie lived on almost 40 more years.
All of us, gathered around the upright piano.
A snap of me, wearing only panties, about four years old, caught by Sissie, snooping in stuff I had no business snooping in.
Me, lifting my skirt up to my neck, the better to show off my new cowboy boots from my godparents, Margaret and Albert.
A sweet photo of me with my Monnie’s smoke-gray cat, Josephine. Another with me and Josephine and “Lady,” Monnie’s beagle. We had “Lady One” and “Lady Two,” I’m not sure which “Lady” is in the picture.
In the background, a picture of D.C. and Marie’s house, my Monnie’s neighbors. They were cool; they had glass candy dishes in their house, always with ribbon candy in them.
The whole album, full of memories and relatives who are now scattered across the nation, back when we’d all gather in one place at one time, at least once a year.
My sister and I’ve talked about these pictures this week, and this we agree – boy, they make us miss our “Monnie,” our grandmother who died not too long ago, well into her 80’s. My sister has had to put the pictures aside a time or two, the hurt of missing our Monnie is just more than she can take sometimes.
We miss her, the little five-foot-two live wire that she was. Tiny but strong, Monnie was, and I can remember finally becoming taller than her when I was in third grade. Becoming taller than Monnie was a major life event.
Monnie’s hair was so fine that the Texas wind could blow her hair straight with one blast. To counter the Texas wind, she wore surgeon’s scrub caps when outdoors. A grandmother in a scrubcap was a perfectly normal thing to us, growing up. And she was smart, those caps sure did keep her hairdo looking good – until she went to the beauty shop the next week.
The photo album is a blessing, it reinforces that, at one time, we were all young. There really was a time when my eyes sparkled and the freckles across my nose and cheeks were new. There really was a time when I had the world in front of me.
And it's true, the little farm house that my Pa Pa built for my Monnie was ever bit as festive as I remember on holidays. My memories have all gotten a lovely and unexpected "booster shot."
The people around me all really did love me and my sister, and we were very, very happy girls. My dear great aunt Sissie was beautiful, seen in one shot with her friend Mary, holding my sister when she was about 11 months old. So pretty; I even keep Sissie and Mary in my brain at this age.
Heck, in the sixties, we were all beautiful. The whole family was.
And now, I’ve got the album to prove it. Thanks to my dear great aunt Sissie. And thanks to Mama, knowing that my sister and I would want these photographs, we’d want to treasure them – all static shots in time, proof of the people we loved and who loved us, too.