Yesterday's Magazette

8 – Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kids

Here’s Lookin’

At You, Kids

By Madonna Dries Christensen

The oral history of a family, while invaluable, tends to change as it filters through the generations. Events are viewed differently by different people; memories fade, and tales are often edited or embellished to suit the teller. But the stories told by the family album cannot be altered. Without them, much family history would be lost to time. Photos acquaint us with kinfolk we never knew, and keep alive the memory of those who’ve gone before us. They enable us to go home again and visit the past.

Pictures shore up and enrich memories; fill in details when the mind fails. Pictures provide answers to genealogy questions. A license plate on a car marked Just Married identifies the year a couple wed and the state in which to find their marriage license. My mind tells me we lived in a particular house when I made my First Communion, but pictures of me in my white finery prove we had moved to another house.


My mother documented the times of our lives with her Kodak box camera. She must have had it handy from the first days of her marriage, when she snapped a picture of her husband and their firstborn on the farmhouse porch. Poppy was handsome and debonair in a suit and a snap-brim cap; Joe wore the usual baby attire, complete with high-button shoes. Then Poppy turned the camera on Ma and Joe. She is fashionably dressed in a cloche, a coat with a fur collar, black hose and shoes. Her hat tells me they were dressed for church; Catholic women covered their heads back then.

More children followed, and Ma’s pictorial story unfolded over three decades. A group of us were photographed scattered along a fence, in a shady grove, on the porch swing. In the driveway, a bevy of children, along with aunts, uncles and cousins, are piled atop and around the car, reminiscent of a scene from The Grapes Of Wrath.

My two oldest brothers were photographed standing atop a snow covered farm building, verifying the mountains of snow during the blizzards of 1936-37. There’s a picture labeled: Christmas day, 1946, when we traipsed outdoors coatless to prove that Iowa has warm winter days. Another picture recalls for me not only my wool pants suit made from my brother’s Navy uniform, but the seamstress hired to make it. Mrs. Emma Tjossem was a tiny widow who smelled like Sen-Sen. She lived across the street from the park, upstairs in someone’s house, with the outdoor flight of stairs around back. She wore a pincushion bracelet, a tape measure necklace, and a dress adorned with snippets of thread.

I know that we were as poor as the proverbial church mouse, but our apparel would not reveal that to strangers viewing our pictures. I’ve looked at other people’s pictures from that era and my family doesn’t look much different than they do. Our clothing sources were home sewn, from church rummage sales, and now and then store-bought. Garments were handed down from one to the other until there wasn’t an hour’s worth of wear left.

We were captured in play clothes and dirty faces, and scrubbed faces and angelic white for First Communion and Confirmation. For the latter occasions the boys had fresh haircuts; their curls, cowlicks, or crew cuts slicked down or up with a comb dipped in water. We girls added veils, ribbons, or bows to our pipe-curls. We all held a new rosary draped over a new prayer book; white for girls, black for boys.

We wore feed sack dresses and pinafores, mannish little boy three piece suits, knickers, little army nurse and cowboy costumes, overalls, coveralls, sweaters, snowsuits, mackinaws, pea jackets, and coats pinned shut where buttons had been. The boys wore blue jeans they called “whoopee pants.” I don’t know why. With the jeans they wore “inner-outer” shirts. You guessed it, they could be worn tucked in or hanging out.

Our heads were capped with baby bonnets, Easter hats, ear flappers, stocking caps, headscarves, and turbans wrapped around pincurls. We were shod in high-tops, oxfords, loafers, patent leather, sandals, saddle shoes, and four buckle overshoes. In winter, our knobby-kneed little girl legs were covered with full-length brown cotton stockings, wrinkled like an elephant’s legs from the long johns underneath. When it grew warm, we shed the underwear and rolled the stockings into plump doughnuts around our ankles. Then we switched to anklets or bobby socks, next came bare legs, and, finally, bare feet. Ah; summer had arrived.

Pictures tell stories about my three older sisters, as teenagers. Sometimes pudgy, other times slimmed down, they were perky, giggly, pouty, coy, and sexy. Their hair styles and clothing reveal that they, like all young girls, were fashion conscious. The two older girls rolled their hair in pads called “rats” or used home permanents to set it into tight curls. The younger of the trio didn’t need such accouterments. Her hair was naturally curly, coal black, thick and lustrous. They wore leg makeup and drew seam lines up the backs of their legs when war brought a hosiery shortage. They dolled up in hats or snoods, spectator pumps, wedgies, and sling-backs, pleated slacks, shorts and midriffs, dirndl skirts, blouses tied under their bosoms, Rosie The Riveter overalls, and dresses whose style has come and gone again.

My younger brothers were photographed in a homemade wagon. “The bubs,” as Poppy called the littlest kids in the family, are adorable in over-sized caps. A couple of years later, Ma caught the same pair, plus four friends, perched on a bench like crows on a telephone line, reading comic books. The twin babies of the family are shown doing this, that, and the other thing. Coming along in late 1945 after the deaths of two children within seventeen months, twins brought Ma’s personal models to a baker’s dozen.

Norma had died at fifteen, from kidney disease; eight-month-old Donnie from pneumonia. The last picture taken of Norma belied her illness; only my parents knew she was dying. I was eight at the time, and nine-and-a-half when Donnie died. I recall their deaths, but almost nothing about their lives. Family snapshots verify their brief existence.

Ma sometimes stopped her work and our play and appeared with her camera. “Hold still a minute,” she’d say, and we’d freeze like a game of Statues. On one such day, when winter had conceded to spring, she posed us in the yard where the sun had melted enormous mounds of snow. The picture, showing trees and houses mirrored in large puddles, was one of her favorites.

“Larry, you little devil, get away,” she often said when she had a select group of us arranged just so. “I want only the girls in this picture.” But like Alfred Hitchcock appearing in all his own movies, Larry played the extra in our scenes. His face can usually be seen behind a bush or in the corner somewhere.

One day I asked Ma to show me how to use her camera. She gave it to me with the instructions, “Hold it at your waist, find the picture in the window, and push this button. The sun should be behind you. Turn this knob after every picture or you’ll have a double exposure.” (Double exposures fascinated me).

“Who should I take a picture of?” I asked.

“Anyone but me,” she replied. She preferred being on the business end of the camera rather than the object of its curious eye.

When I began earning money of my own, I bought a camera with a flash attachment. This opened new possibilities: we could be photographed inside as well as outdoors. That was about the time Ma retired her old black box, thinking, I imagine, that newer is better. Not always so. I had several cameras after that, but the color has faded from many prints taken only a few years ago. Ma’s black and white images remain sharp, and continue conveying stories to her grandchildren and their children and beyond.

Ma could never have imagined the photographic legacy she left us. But I thank her for it whenever I glance at the black and white image of her hanging above my desk. No more than twenty, she’s wearing a Mother Hubbard maternity dress with a soiled apron over it, and a man’s felt hat. A team of horses’ rear ends complete the scene, with Ma holding the reins on whatever farm job she was doing. It’s one of my favorite pictures of her, probably taken by Poppy with the box camera that preserved our lives on paper (and now digitalized on CD).

Vol. 36 No. 2 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Spring – 2009


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