Strangers crashed the family photo

Published 10:01 am Friday, July 6, 2012

Column: Katie Mullaly, Notes from Home

Katie Mullaly

I don’t know who my mother’s parents were.  Both had passed away before I was born. I feel there are a lot of confidences kept to the Ross side of the family, moments that are held deep in the hearts of my aunts and uncles and some secrets that will be, and have been, buried alongside all of them. These memories that are kept in the family make it harder for me to understand my past and force me to rely only on the photos that have been left behind in boxes in our basement.

There are family photos of my mom’s parents and siblings in a large, beautiful brown cookie cutter house from the 1950s, and there are family photos of a white farmhouse with wide open grass and brush later on, with just my grandfather and his children.

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My maternal grandmother, Jane (Palmer) Ross, married my grandfather, Allen J. Ross in the summer of 1941 up in Bemidji. Before meeting Allen, Jane had been going to school for nursing, while he had gone to school to be an architect. My mother still has one of my grandfather’s architectural paintings he made in college hanging in our house: a gold frame accents the water-colored design of a courthouse that I’m sure, for 1936, looks ultramodern.  My grandfather’s architecture is scattered across the southern part of the state through Worthington, Bird Island, Mankato and even my hometown of Blue Earth.

Allen Ross made his mark on Minnesota.  There’s a photograph of my grandfather in his older years at his farm house that he had for the later part of his life. His hair is curled and grayed on the top of his head, and his face is smiling without his mouth doing the same.

He has this reserved look of patience about him but you can tell he’s happy. The frames of his glasses are thick, and he has a cigarette wedged between his thin lips. His hands look so strong and sure in that photograph. I don’t know who this man was but I assume he was strong.

After meeting the dashing and debonair architect of her dreams, Jane married and became  a housewife and full-time mother to eight children: three boys and five girls. I don’t know much about my grandmother but what I do know is that she was very loving.

My aunts and mother talk about her fondly; all of their memories, their stories are told with the word mother. Never “Mom,” “Mommy,” or “Ma” as most Minnesotans say, but mother — a formal, respectful title that holds a certain weight to it that other names don’t seem to carry.

I always think back to a specific picture of my grandmother when her name is mentioned in stories. She is laying on a pale beige couch, her feet up, her head resting on the arm behind her; she too has a mop of thick, curly whitish hair and a cigarette in her hand. She’s wearing a pastel teal or green type of day gown, something comfortable and casual yet practical. She has a pointy nose that carries her thick-rimmed glasses, and her smile cascades across her face from cheek to cheek.

I cannot recall if the picture is around Christmas time or not but in my memory, she’s haloed with silver tinsel all around her. My mother says that’s what she did every afternoon — she would take a rest on the couch, light a cigarette and let the kids run around the house and the room, never telling them to get out or leave her alone. Sometimes they would play music on the record player, other times, they would put on shows for their mother and she would laugh like a vacuum cleaner.

I like to smile with the Ross side of the family when they mention my maternal grandparents.  If I’m lucky, when I hear Jane Ross or Allen Ross, I can pull up the photographs I have of them catalogued in my mind. I have no idea who these people are; they only exist in the stories and photographs they left behind on the lips of their children and the film of their cameras.


Katie Mullaly is a residence coordinator at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa.