It could not have been an easy life. And it was short.
She gave birth at 15 and buried her husband before she turned 20. Desperately poor, she and my grandfather shared small quarters with her widowed Virginia-born mother, who moved north to Philadelphia after the Civil War. Family lore says their apartment was furnished with orange crates.
A second marriage ten years later led to an estrangement with her son, her only child. She spent the last years of her life toiling as a housekeeper. She was dead by 48.
Her given name was Estella Virginia Neals. She married first a Buel, who at birth had been, most likely, a Bull. Spelling was creative in those times; she’s Estalla in one document, Stella in another; her surnames variously end with an E, an S, or in double L. She was my great-grandmother, and I know almost nothing about her.
When my father’s sister, Ada Virginia, passed away several years ago, I inherited my Aunt Ginny’s journals, a bundle of yellowing documents related to her nursing career, and a plastic bag stuffed with old family photographs. In the interest of preserving history, I put the precious photos – the grayed and sepia-hued cabinet cards on heavy stock, the few tintypes, the miniature snapshots from the 1920s and 30s, the washed out Polaroid prints – in a very safe place, and promptly forgot all about them, including where I’d stashed the lot. It took several weeks of methodical searching before I finally found them, quite tidy and safe indeed, in of all places a plastic box on the floor of my office closet.
On the whole, they are a solemn bunch, the individuals who stare out of the nearly 80 images. In the older portraits, those taken before the turn of the 20th Century, they stand erect before draped or fancifully painted backdrops, or sit straight-backed in wicker thrones unlikely to have graced any sun porch of their own. Their Sunday best costumes are seeded with pearl buttons or adorned with lace. The women’s crisp white blouses gather into full skirts, showing off tiny waists. Their hairstyles are disciplined and occasionally severe, the crowing glory artfully gathered or pomaded into place.
It’s clear those having their portraits made brought to their sittings the gravitas that the rarity and expense of the occasion deserved. Serious expressions dominate. The only wide smile belongs to the lovely and sought-after Great Aunt Fanny; she had, I for some reason believed, four husbands, though photos and historical archives document only one, a dapper gent in a straw boater hat and a finely tailored suit.
How each in the procession of her fabled spouses might have – in his turn -- made way for the next is a troubling thought. Maybe in the retelling of family myth, multiple suitors grew into the handful of husbands. I am unwilling to imagine the vivacious Fanny -- in one photo a euphoric young mother, lifting a pretty child dressed in baptismal whites --donning the heavy garments of mourning again and again.
But of all the somber photos in the trove my Aunt Ginny left behind, the saddest faces belong to Estella and the man her son grew to become. Can you inherit melancholy? Can deprivation as a child leave you forever longing, forever afraid of further loss?
And he would know loss, my grandfather. His father, Walter Augustus, died at 26 of “Erupyemia” and was buried in a casket described only as “plain.” His first wife, my father’s mother, would die young as well, of an ear infection that spread to the brain. We forget that death was so close at hand in those days, and hospital care largely a luxury for the well-off.
What must life have been like for my grandfather and the women who raised him, crowded together in Philadelphia’s Ward 14 at the turn of the 20th century? How did an empty apartment fare in comparison with what the Neals had left behind in the South? It’s impossible to know.
My grandfather, Harry Buel, left home in his teens. He became a conductor, working out of the train station in Wilmington. I have one photo of him in uniform looking up from an assortment of schedules, and another posing on the tracks. He wore a shirt and tie, another sort of uniform, when he drove down to see us on the farm in Sussex County, Delaware.
When we visited his home in Wilmington, he let me pass the time in his office, reading his photography guidebooks, peering through pages fitted with circles of colored plastic demonstrating the effects of different lenses. I’d sit on the floor and study his set of Funk & Wagnalls, where I learned about the lineage of the British monarchy and the discovery of Java man. Why I remember these two entries in combination is anyone’s guess.
My father with stepmother, Minerva, and father, Harry
My father’s stepmother, Minerva, was an invalid when I knew her. She did not ever, as I recall, rise from her bed upon our arrival. My only memory of her takes place in her sickroom. I climbed the stairs alone and stood anxiously by her beside; I was probably no more than ten. She looked at me and said, “For a little girl, you have very big feet.”
From what I know of the woman, I believe it’s fair to interpret this remark as representative of her essential nature. She entered my father’s life early, not long after his real mother died. There’s a photo of my father as a young boy, sitting on the porch steps between his dad and Minerva, head in his hands, his face revealing grueling boredom.
The family photographs have captivated my imagination and spurred me to spend far too much time on Internet sites devoted to genealogy. It’s been a fascinating journey, rewarding though frustrating, too. Mistakes abound in these old documents, or in their transcriptions. And -- newsflash – people lie to census takers. Not that I want to indict the character of any of my forbearers. I’m sure they had their reasons. Let’s just say personal histories can vary substantially, depending upon the audience.
Estella appears in only three of the images. In the earliest, she is a very young woman, a dark, slender figure, her black hair parted and rolled away from a face that is both lovely and wistful. In another, she is seated with her mother, Emma. Estella wears a high collared dress; ornate buttons embellish the neck. Her beautiful hair is rolled into a semblance of a Gibson Girl style. The older woman wears a white blouse and rimless spectacles. Her hair is tightly crimped and caught at the top of her head.
Between them stands my young grandfather in a heavy suit with a vest. His neck is fitted with a tall, stiff collar. A slight smile crosses his lips; the knot of a fancy tie sits askew at his throat. All three look not at us, but at some point beyond the photographer’s right shoulder.
There’s a final image – a broken, deteriorating tintype -- of the three along with an old woman I cannot identify. All four are garbed in bathing outfits of the era, the women in dark, knee-length dresses with wide ribbon adorning the hems of full skirts, outlining collars and the cuffs of puffy sleeves. My grandfather is closely shorn, seated in front of the women, knobby knees emerging from long bathing shorts. He gazes directly at the camera.
So does Estella. But in the photo, she’s a different woman. She’s in her late twenties at most, but has the appearance of a woman much older. Her mouth is tight; the lines around it are deep. Shadows above and beneath her eyes that in youth were mild and lent a little mystery are now defined and dark. They scream fatigue. A certain resignation seems to inform her features and her posture as she leans toward the middle of the frame, her head propped up on an elbow that rests on a column for support.
Only a little of the backdrop can be discerned. I can make out the bold stripes of a lighthouse. It’s meant to be festive, of course, the photographer’s set and scene: the family outing, the beach holiday. My great-grandmother’s expression betrays the farce.
As much as I cherish these photos, and have reveled in diving into the family past and supplying as best I can the branches of the tree with full names and verifiable dates, I remain haunted by these images of Estella.
Who was she, this young woman with the dark, faraway eyes? What were her dreams, and her mother’s for her, and hers for her son?
I wish I could fill in the wide, dim spaces of what I know of her life, and rewrite for her a far better ending.
This column first appeared in the May 2012 issue of The North Star Monthly.