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Thursday, November 6, 2014

What is Seen Cannot Be Unseen

Damn the Victorians and the Information Age

Queen Victoria and Family

Yesterday, I fell prey to the oldest trick on the internet when I chose to "click here to view gallery."  So the promising headline in this case was something about the odd things Victorians did with their dead.  The gist of this gallery was final photos of the deceased posed as they were in life.  Quips like "One of these things is not like the other" introduced family portraits of mixed here and hereafter siblings.  One photo had a Conga line of five or six siblings leading down from the oldest to the wee dead toddler whom I think even had her/his hand resting on the shoulder of the next child up.    Imagine the Von Trapp Children all in a line and a stiff little Gretl bringing up the rear. What would they have had to bribe Marta with to let Gretl's cold, rigid hand be rested on her shoulder.  There's not enough bon bons in the world, my friend.  Obviously, I'm mixing eras and sensibilities here but it is a fair comparison for the most part.

I didn't finish looking through the photos as they degenerated pretty rapidly but also because, of course, I'd known of this practice, and looking at only a few photos was enough to turn an abstract idea into a revolting truth quite handily.  However, before I was completely out of this macabre sidetrack to my day, I saw diagrams of the wooden frames photographers attached corpses to in order to pose them.  I also saw that this death as life tableau was best supported by a standing corpse "leaning" on a piece of furniture.  It was that information right there that hardened into another ghastly thought and likely the truth about a family photograph I never understood why we had.

Queen Vic and daughter
As you may remember, there were three surviving Cass children born to Diantha and Judd.  Frank, whom I descend from, and Frank's two sisters Mary who married Gib Eccles and Adaline (Addie) who married Gib's older brother Josiah.   Aunt Addie makes next to no appearance in Allen's transcribed journals.  Though she and her sister were married to brothers, it is clear Mary and Gib were Frank and Nora's closest kin in friendship and shared lives.  Mary had a daughter Luella from a first, dissolved marriage and a brood of boys with Gib. Allen loved his cousins very much and they are all mentioned throughout. 

I have often wondered if Addie's life was steeped in a sadness so strong it kept her from sharing in the bustle of homes filled with her extended family.  Addie and Josiah had a daughter Myrta in 1874.  She died in childhood and while I have absolutely no photos of Addie and don't know what she looked like, Diana does have this one photo of Myrta who never made it out of the 1880s.  So why, I asked myself.  Why do I know what the dead daughter looks like but no one else from that branch, not even the daughter Bernice born in 1887 who survived to have her own family--The Lees?  Why indeed.

And that is why yesterday when I was peeking at the methods of the Victorian photographers through half closed eyes, the image of Myrta standing so perfectly, her hands resting on a chair back began to superimpose itself onto the diagram.  I pushed the thought out but it kept coming back.  She's dead in the photo.  She's dead.  I always knew the photo had to have been taken at the end of her life because she is so frail.  There is more weight to the fabric of her dress than to her entire body.  Her wrist bone is so delicate and exposed.  She is dressed like a little adult and very nicely, I think.  Her clothes and earrings suggest money I didn't expect to be available.  I had always thought with deep sorrow that Addie and Josiah saw the end coming and decided to hurry and have this photograph of Myrta taken. They would not have known they would have another child so much time was between Myrta and her future sister.  I fear there must have been many lost babies or pregnancies. Now, however, the eeriness of the photograph suggests their bereavement was deeper than imagined.  It was so intense they likely paid to have this final photograph of Myrta made posthumously.

Since we have no other artifacts directly linked to Addie, I think this photograph was given to Diantha as a reminder of her first grandchild.  We have possessions of Diantha's so that seems the most likely path this photograph took to Diana and me.  Earlier this year, I put the photograph on Find-A-Grave.  It is also posted elsewhere on this blog but in lieu of posting the photo again directly because what is seen cannot be unseen I put the F-A-G link here .  You may think she is still very much alive in the photo but I no longer buy into that.  I think they knew the end was near and they were ready to roll with the photographer (who would want that job btw?) as soon as she crossed over.  So I'd rather give you the choice.  Also, I lost sleep last night thinking about this and I don't want that to happen to anyone else.

I know everyone mourns differently, or at least that's what I was told in kindness by someone after my mother died and my world imploded and everyone seemed strange to me in their own reactions.  But we all react to death on a socially acceptable spectrum for the most part, it's just good some  traditions peter out.  Frankly, I'm very glad we didn't prop Sandie up to get one last snap, she's better in my heart and on Kodachrome where "all the world's a sunny day."