She was 97 when a neighbor went to check on her and found her dead in her kitchen. The entire town mourned our surrogate grandma and I was one of those who volunteered to clean out her tiny house. That was a rough job. Though she kept the place spotless, there were personal possessions and modest bits of furniture to sort through. In the bottom drawer of her dresser, I found a shoe box filled with old photographs, which I took to the kitchen to examine. With hot tea steaming from her favorite cup, I spread the photos on the old, tin-topped table and looked at faded evidence of stories she had told.
She was born Sanda Ann Cooney, in Pipapasses, Kentucky, in 1911, the ninth of fourteen children. There, on top, was a family photo of a man and woman, seated on a bench, with a horde of children around them. Many of the girls were holding younger ones and the seated woman had an infant on her lap. On the back, were names, written in pencil, and the date, July 4, 1917. I found six-year-old Sanda Ann near one edge of the group; she held a toddler brother, Ellis Roy, by the hand. I remembered her telling me that many of them didn’t survive the flu epidemic in 1918.
As I dug through the box, I found photos in no particular order, of the neighbors and their children, over the past fifty years; there were a couple of me, one with my ex-husband holding devil-horn fingers over my head and grinning like an idiot; many of people I didn’t know, most identified only by a hand-written first name and date, in pencil on the back; pictures dated 1932, taken on a train, probably the move to New Hampshire from Kentucky when her husband came work in the shoe factory in Manchester.
For the next hour, I sat, looking at all that remained of a long life, while my tea cooled, untouched. Then, at the very bottom of the box, I found her wedding picture. Her husband was a tall, thin, bearded man, not young (I remembered Sanda Ann telling me that her husband, Elmer Dave Jents, was a Civil War veteran who had died shortly after they moved here.) and standing beside him was Sanda Ann herself, dressed in a too-big cotton dress that had seen better days, with a tiny scrap of veil pinned to her braided hair.
My sister found me sitting there, with tears running down my face. “Are you crying?” she asked.
I handed her the the wedding photo of the aging soldier holding the small hand of his young bride. “She told me ‘Life was hard after Daddy died of the flu, so the girls who lived all married real young’.” I said, pointing to the baby doll in the bride’s other hand and the penciled date – March 3, 1920.