She had dozens of New Years before she knew the end was near. Eighty six of them.
The young woman in this picture, with one hand in her pocket and the other on the arm of her husband, is my grandmother. She’s not looking at the camera. She is looking off to the side. And as many times as I’ve seen this photograph, I’ve not figured out where her gaze was aimed.
All I know about my grandmother is what she told me. It wasn’t much. She was born in rural Michigan. She finished school and then became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She married at 26, after most people had labeled her an old maid, and she immediately quit teaching because, then, at the turn of the century, being a married woman made one unsuitable for teaching children.
She married a widower with one son. And she took up for her new husband, telling his story of childhood deprivation to anyone who would listen. He was well to do, though, owning the only lumber yard in town, and after a while, she was ordering her groceries on the phone and having dressmakers come to the house to take measurements. Until the Depression, when all that changed.
In the faraway look she has in this picture, I wonder if she was thinking about that afternoon or the next day. Was she thinking about another baby and hoping that would happen or wishing it wouldn’t? Did she still love the man whose arm she held or was it just reflex? Had her love for him run out? Was she enduring life or was she glad?
I didn’t know her then. I only knew her later. It seemed to me as a child that her husband dying years before I was born was a watershed event from which there was only partial recovery. Oh, she was still the competent woman who could stay unmarried for 26 years and wrangle a school house full of children, but she was demarcated in terms of having a life that was clearly lived in two parts – real life and life after her husband died.
Life after her husband died involved learning how to drive (my father taught her) and taking a job at the local Ben Franklin Store. The days of ordering groceries on the phone were long dead by then, replaced by keeping things exactly the same in her house while acquiring a taste for TV dinners and professional wrestling. When those things were happening is when I knew her.
When I look at this picture, I yearn for time travel. I wish I could talk to the woman with her hand in her pocket. I wish I knew what she was looking at. I wish I had been her friend.
There were so few pictures then. So the pictures that exist have extraordinary meaning. In another couple of seconds, another photo of my grandmother might have shown her looking at the camera in the most traditional way, posing and smiling. But it is the moment that was captured that defines her for me. Here she was full strength with dozens of New Years in front of her. Her life was so long, her future so endless, in this picture, that she had no thought of the end.
She was only thinking about what comes next. She had one hand in her pocket and the other on her husband’s arm.