This is Pop, otherwise known as Jesse Jones, my great-grandfather. He came to me through my aunt, who rescued him from a termite-damaged frame in the back of my grandmother’s closet in Norco, LA. There had been collateral damage which resulted from a difficult removal from the frame. So I stabilized the cracks, filled and inpainted, and refitted the photo in its convex glass enclosure. It’s been a year since I sent the portrait back. It was my first earnest attempt at working from home, and a validating experience in that I set out to do something I normally do with watchful eyes on me. This time I was unsupervised, no training wheels.
The best part about restoring this family heirloom was the conversation that followed with my 85-year old Granny Jewell. She loved her Pop, and described him as a “rascal.” I spent many hours pondering that handsome face, wondering if he was the same tall old man I saw in my parents’ wedding photos. What had he done to make a living? What sort of traits did he pass on to his children? Why had he sat for this portrait?
I learned that this portrait was taken before my grandmother was born, prior to 1930. Pop had previously been married, and he and his first wife each had these studio portraits made. In those days, sales men walked door to door soliciting photos like this, which would have been printed on a domed surface, which was of course vulnerable if not framed in a special frame with convex glass. It would have been more costly than a traditional flat photo, but people liked the look of it. Pop’s first wife divorced him and moved out west, taking her own portrait with her. He stayed in Louisiana where he became acquainted with the town’s post-mistress, Anna. Soon they married and had 3 girls, one of whom is my Granny Jewell.
Granny said that he was often ill, and couldn’t work. They were very poor, but she made a point of saying in spite of that, they were never hungry. Pop had moved south to Louisiana from Illinois for the sole reason that one could grow crops year round. Combined with the availability of fish and game, the family never lacked fresh food. My Great Grandmother, who was affectionately referred to as Great Mom, was a Cajun woman who still spoke the Creole French of her ancestors. Her husband didn’t like when she spoke French in the home, because having been raised in Illinois, he couldn’t understand it. But according to my mother, a few French phrases hung on in their household even into the 1970’s when Great Mom passed away. Pop wasn’t a fan of Cajun cooking either. My Granny was brought up to cook “white sauces” and blander foods which would have come from Pop’s upbringing upriver in Illinois. Pop was the outlier, but he called the shots in the kitchen.
Pop was good with his hands, and he made a hobby of creating altar pieces. These table top folk-art altars were made for the home-bound Catholics in the rural Louisiana community where he lived. They would have been auctioned off at church events and used by the local people who wanted to worship, but couldn’t attend church due to illness. A few years ago, my grandmother’s sister Enid took it upon herself to attempt to collect as many altars as she could to preserve them for future generations. She was interviewed in her local newspaper for her noble efforts, which led to the preservation of at least a half dozen of these artifacts.
The preservation gene runs strong on that side of my family. My mother has long been the family historian, and I got Great Aunt Enid’s itch for restoring old stuff. We all are swayed by sentimentality, looking for answers in our past. Metaphorically turning over rocks in search of clues as to how we all got here.