By Lori Parker
I love old photographs. To me they bring back memories of people and places of times past. Some have more meaning than others as I am sure it is for all people.
Over the years, friends and relatives have given me many photographs of my mother, Catherine Ann Whiting. Several, though, came through acts of discovery, or serendipity, or blind luck, or any of the other words used to describe acts that seem almost directed or choreographed from an outside agent. As is often the case for serendipitous acts, timing played a critical role in its impact. One photo of my mother arrived while Nancy Nolte and I were arranging a movie night for our fledgling historical group Memories Around the Round Town Square, with a movie about the building of the bridge over the Big Blue River in 1952, provided by the family of the man who had filmed it.
The photograph was of my mother sitting in a wheelbarrow atop that bridge, surrounded by various machinery and signs of incompletion. On the back of the photo was the year—1952, which was also the year of her graduation. She faces the camera, eyes boring straight through the lens and onto the emulsion in the exact thousands-of-a-second that it took for the shutter to snap open and lock the image into an eternity that for her would exist only for another dozen years. I was nine years old when she succumbed to nephritis.
Photographs, like lives, are transient. Sometimes they outlive the faces and the places and sometimes they don’t. Photographs taken of the Class of 52’s 50th reunion vaporized during a computer meltdown, a hard and bitter lesson taught to my husband who was just making the transition from film to digital photography. Of special note was a shot of classmate Joe Stryker acting silly with a yellow rose clenched in his teeth. I loved that photo. The roses, a half-dozen which were given to me by Marj Lockhart to place on my mother’s grave, were a catalyst for tears that had until that moment remained firmly under control, and gone now except for their memory. As with Joe, too.
Tom and I moved here for many reasons but one of them was to chase memories of my mother. Invitations such as the reunion were as unexpected as they were healing. Al Singleton had asked me to sit in for my mother at her class reunion, and even today putting words to that memory are hard. But that night her classmates filled some open wounds with their love of my mother. They were all so wonderful.
Collecting and preserving these kinds of stories fueled our desire to start a historical society of some sort. The stories of this small town in Marshall County are endless, though death eventually silences its tellers. With like-minded friends such as Nancy Nolte, we formed a loosely-knit group we called Memories Around the Round Square, and we solicited stories, photographs and artifacts that could be shared during meetings. It was during one such meeting that the bridge film was aired.
Sixty years later a new bridge is being built across the Big Blue River. I started telling my family it would be fun to have another picture taken with another family member on the new bridge, a re-creation of sorts. Tom suggested a picture of me on the bridge but I told him to get the effect it really needed to be someone younger. He’d roll his eyes theatrically, but our son, Ben, was listening.
His 12-year-old daughter, Sage, would be visiting him in July, so we made arrangements for her to come to Kansas for a week. She agreed to be our model, but during her stay construction worked late into the evening and sometimes the light was wrong (something Tom insisted must be perfect), and time slipped away until we were left with a single evening. It was now or never: we had exactly one chance to get the photograph.
When we arrived the sun was low and shadows long and there in the center of the bridge was a wheelbarrow. Unfortunately a wheel was missing so Sage sat beside it, though it made the picture that much more meaningful. Tom snapped a few shots, processed them in the computer and backed up the photos to external hard drives—five of them, in fact, two of which are kept off-site. He learned his lesson well.
What strikes me is how much Sage resembles her great-grandmother. They are both young and beautiful and on the verge of something new even as the bridge was new, and unfinished, but filled with promise. To me the two photographs are priceless, and when taken together form a sense of continuity and wholeness, of completion, with each element intrinsic to their stories: a bridge to span the gulf of time, a wheelbarrow to carry their dreams.