Sepia Saturday: Saved from the Flames
(Our contribution to Sepia Saturday #13. Check out the other entries. Above is our subject unenhanced and below with a bit of tinkering.)
"I hope you're not planning to pull those out of there."
"I certainly hope you weren't planning to throw them into the dumpster."
"Why not. We don't even know who they are."
That was the dialogue between my aunt and me some 35 years ago as she was sorting through boxes in my grandmother's house shortly after she died. It doesn't take much guess work as to who spoke which line.
Well, I still don't know who these are but have some hunches. We have a photo in a similar frame of my Great-Great-Uncle Will who fought in the war with a Union regiment from New Jersey. He died around 1914, and his wife, Carrie was sort of a family legend whose story was often shared at family reunions. She was often called a "Civil War widow" even though she was only four when the war ended. However, when she was 14 and Will was about 35, they married. It was a second marriage for him since his first wife and their baby died during the birth.
My mother had tales of Carrie coming to live in her household in the mid-1930s when she was likely in her late 60s -- considered incredibly ancient back then but about the same age as Barbara Streisand today. Carrie was described with the catchall phrase of the era of being "senile" or "eccentric". But in an era where Social Security was just a germ of an idea, it was not unusual for the "senile widow" to go live with extended family. Carrie had been widowed for at least 20 years by then, and she lost her only child 35 years before that. Who knows if these events led to her declining mental capacity, but I remember my mother telling stories of how she and her friends made the best of the elderly woman who came to share their household.
"I know it sounds horrible, but my friends and I would play dress up and then go ring the doorbell and tell Carrie that we were some of her old school mates," my mother said. "She would be so excited and would prepare tea and pull out the most fancy cookies that our mother wouldn't let us eat. Then when our mother came home, Carrie would tell her about the wonderful visit she had from her old chums. Mother would look at us as if she knew the real story but never took us to task."
There were also stories of Carrie clutching the drapes and wailing during the fireworks on the Fourth of July crying, "The Confederates are crossing the Potomac! They're going to take Washington!"
She was also a night wanderer, and in that day of no one locking their doors, it was not unusual for the neighbors to be startled in the middle of the night as they saw Carrie at the foot of their bed. They would put on their bathrobes and politely escort her back home.
Could that be Carrie and one of her sisters in the photo? Since it was in the same box as Will's photo, I want to believe it is, making it likely from the late 1860s of early 1870s. I'll probably never know, but even if it's a mysterious stranger with no link to our bloodline I am still glad I saved it from the flames.