Thursday, August 25, 2011

Family Picture, Plus a Note
On Growing Up in the 20C USA

My niece Marilyn just lately surfaced this on her Facebook page--a family picture:

That's my grandmother, second from left, with her seven (surviving) children, some time in the mid 1920s.  My own mother, Esther, is at far left.  I guess I've seen it in the past but it offers insights now that I never thought of before.

Some background: mama and papa, Swedish immigrants, met and married in the early 90s.  Papa died about 1910 (the family tradition says that an eighth child and another close relative died the same week).  That is: papa died and left mama with nothing aside from seven young mouths to feed, none out of their teens.  The fact that gets more astonishing to me with each passing year is that she held this family together.   It surely couldn't have been easy: apparently she had to call on her own family.  My own mother, never particularly religious, used to recall with nostalgia and gratitude the kind of support they got from the (Swedish Lutheran) church.  The older three had to leave school early.   My mother --she would have been fifth, I think--did finish high school.  She told me years later that she had wanted to go to "college" (I think she had been hoping for a one year teaching certification program), but there wasn't any cash.

So far, so good: but recall that calamity befell them something like 15 years before this picture.  And now they all look so prosperous.  Or at least solvent, stable, dare I say bourgeois.  Which is not to say they were rich.   Evert (the oldest, far right) was already on his way as a successful salesman, but he had a new family of his own.   I think at least three of the girls--Esther, plus Elin and Selma, the two with glasses, would have been working, but at secretarial jobs where they can't have been earning much.  Yet everything about this picture radiates a kind of middle-class respectability and security.

From the time of the picture on, there were ups and downs.  Elin and Evelyn both died before the end of the 20s--I forget of what, I think one or another of those implacable diseases that swept people away in those days (so also their father and brother).  The men and the surviving girls married--except Selma: too picky, a friend said of her in her old age, but I suspect she thought she was just picky enough.  None divorced.  Mama died in 1936, the year I was born.  "I assume of exhaustion" I used to say--but I wonder: here she seems to radiate a quiet pride and satisfaction, and  who can blame her?--looks like a job well done.

In my youth I often encountered all five surviving sibs together at family gatherings.  Most of their marriages were happy but you got the sense that their ties to each other might be more durable than anything they had acquired later in life.

Oh, and another thing: look at the posing.   It's quite artful.  Except for Evelyn who seems to be trying to hide behind her oldest sister (Louise), everybody seems relaxed and presentable, with just enough personal space.   In its groupiness, it could almsot be a Velázquez or  Rembrandt.  For future reference, then: an artifact of middle-class life. Wonder what an American-family portrait would look like if taken today.

1 comment:

MER said...

Fascinating insight. I truly have stared at that picture off and on for hours and so wished I knew how it was taken, how was it staged, how did they choose their clothes, seating, etc. Fascinating...