Monday, February 18, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 8): Family Photo

The Girl Inside My Mother

My mother, Doris (right), with her Aunt Stella in March 1969.  El Cerrito, CA.

I recently ran across a photo I had not seen in many years.  My mom, Doris, kept it tucked away in a small album that contained mostly photos of garden roses and cacti or succulent plants she had nurtured to astounding size and health (she had a green thumb).  The photo dates back to March 1969, and it is of Mom sitting at our dining room table with one of her maternal aunts.  A special birthday cake made around the torso of a doll is displayed on the table in front of them.  It is a simple image, made with the early color film that ended up fading too easily, shot with a prized possession of the 1960s, a Kokak Instamatic camera.

What is special about this photo is the completely relaxed and happy look on my mother's face.  The cake was in honor of her 49th birthday which occurred that St. Patrick's Day.  Mom was shy and reserved.  She was always a worrier, and never felt totally comfortable being on the receiving end of a camera.  But, this special moment meant so much to her that we can just see her appreciation spilling over in that smile.  It is the same living-in-the-moment happiness she certainly experienced as a child growing up on a farm.  This carefree contentment did not show on her face very often, but it did manage to get captured in a few photos over the course of her lifetime.  At the time this photo was taken, her happiness was about more than just birthday cake.  It had to do with being next to the woman on her right, my grandmother's youngest sister, Stella (Berge) Schuster.

In early 1969, Mom's Aunt Stella traveled from Minnesota to the Bay Area for a rare visit, along with another aunt, Clarice (Berge) Gunzberger, and her husband, Sol Gunzberger.  It was the first time and only time I ever remember meeting any of my grandmother's siblings.  It was a mild March in the Bay Area--the sun was shining and the lovely Saucer Magnolia tree in our front yard was in full bloom, with large whitish-pink petals scattered about the lawn.

My maternal grandmother, Esther (Berge) Johnson, passed away in Minnesota from tuberculosis before my mother turned two years of age.  It was a devastating loss for Mom and her sister, Phyllis.  Although the little sisters were well cared for by family members, they grew up without a mother to nurture and defend them.  The girls were sent to live with their paternal grandparents, and since Esther's family lived in another town, Mom did not get to see the maternal (Berge) side of her family very often.

Esther Johnson with her baby, Doris, in 1920.
When Mom became an adult and left her paternal grandparents' farm, she moved in with her Aunt Stella in St. Paul, Minnesota and found a job.  Shortly after, she followed other relatives to California, although truth be told, she would rather have stayed in Minnesota.  She enjoyed living with her maternal aunt in St. Paul and getting to know her better.  One time, I asked Mom who of her relatives she thought I was most like, and she said it was Stella.  I was flattered, since Stella, who had worked as a nurse, was quiet, kind, and sensitive.  She was the type of aunt that I, too, wished I could have spent more time with.

Is it any wonder that this particular photograph captures Mom's face in a rare moment of unfettered happiness?  Stella and Clarice brought along so many pleasant memories and feelings to the reunion.  They were close blood kin to Mom's own mother, and it was almost as if Esther had come along, too.  Through the eyes, voices, and arms of her younger sisters, Esther returned to Earth once more to reassure her baby girl--my mother, Doris.

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