Allan took hold of Eunice’s little finger as the camera lifted. She stiffened slightly but from the corner of his eye he glimpsed the hint of a smile pass across her face. Her hand hung awkwardly, didn’t move away; didn’t come any closer either. Allan smiled broadly. He was going to marry this woman.
This woman was my grandmother. Ma to us, and always a mystery to me. She was kind and gracious in the way she lived. Every year she entered her floral arrangements and baking into the local show. She talked about the little things – the flowers in the garden, the weather, the birds that came to visit, their caravan holidays and about what family and friends were up to. She had a high moral standard that she taught to her children. When I moved away from Stanthorpe at seventeen we wrote each other letters, first by hand on floral stationery, then typed, then emailed. But as life got busy those became less frequent and we drifted apart.
However kind and sociable Ma was, I never felt I really knew her. She was always ‘proper’ and dignified. There was a subtle sense of distance held and when it came to expressing emotion she had a Victorian reserve. She rarely smiled in photographs.
Ma passed away recently. My grandfather, Allan – Pa to us – passed away a few years earlier. For nearly sixty years they lived in the house that Pa built. Before everything gets divided up and sold off I’ve had time to stay in their home, collecting memories through photography and writing.
Curious, I hoped to find clues into Ma’s life beyond the reserved front and my view of her as ‘grandmother’. I wondered what she was like when she was younger. Did she ever laugh loudly? I can barely imagine her giggling. How did she and Pa get together? Was it romantic? Who made the first move? She never talked about it in front of us and the reserve is inherited; we wouldn’t ask if she wouldn’t tell.
I found only one clue. A palm-sized sepia photograph tucked away in their bedroom. It shows Ma and Pa in the early 1950’s shortly before they were married. She was about twenty years old and he eleven years older. He grins broadly in his pipe band uniform and she tries to remain serious but her mouth turns up in a quirked smile that makes her look slightly mischievous. What I love most about this image is how Pa holds her hand. He’s only got hold of one finger and she doesn’t hold his back yet it seems to be the source of that smile and the glint in her eye in her otherwise rigid physicality.
This single photograph tells me so much that Ma never told me herself. It shows her lighter side. To me, this is why photography is so important. We need our family photos. We need our wedding photos. The right wedding photographer these days will capture not just the bride and groom but will articulate visually the bonds between family. There are so many stories in these images.
I once photographed a groom’s aunt who wore a beautiful scarf around her head. She looked radiant and serene. I discovered later she’d just finished cancer treatment. The family had been through a rough time in the lead up to the wedding and the wedding was a gift for everyone, something for the family to celebrate after a time of upheaval.
Another image I captured showed a grandfather playing with his six month old granddaughter. They look into each other’s eyes, the girl is mid-laugh, pink tongue poking out and he smiles, a warm glint in his eyes. He passed away shortly after the wedding but the child will have a beautiful image to give her a sense of connection to a grandfather she won’t otherwise remember.
Photography provides a window into happy and sad stories in every family history. Images captured at weddings and family events enlighten future generations with insight into previous times, allowing us to better understand our place in the grand scheme of things. This ability relies on the strength of a single image, just as one palm-sized photograph showed me that my grandmother wasn’t always so serious.
This essay was first published in the Nov 2013 issue of White Magazine (Issue 23)