When Mother died in 2011, she left us a house full to family treasures in the form of photography. She also left us libraries of books, many signed by the author, that ranged from Indian lore to the classics. My brother, Ben, said it was like sifting through the Library of Congress.
But it was the trove of photographs that slowed our clearing out work. Not ones to toss memories aside, Ben and I enjoyed poring over every family picture, recalling what we could remember and wishing we still had someone to ask about others. It took us well over a year to sort through, lay claim to, and eventually clear out all the sweet fragments of people’s lives from the “archives” at 2004 Royal Street.
I now have in my basement bins of pictures and correspondence and other material of interest to probably no one but me. Somebody else can do the second round of sorting when I’m gone.
But the photographs that everyone seems interested in are those disappearing scenes of the South that my mother made through the years, beginning with her Brownie box camera when she was 12. The first picture she ever took was of an elderly woman standing at a spinning wheel. Mother told me her daddy took her out to the country with him not long after she got that camera, and they stopped at the woman’s house to visit. And Mother took a picture.
She took pictures throughout her travels in the South. She made photographs of country stores, of clothes hung on fences to dry, of haircuts in a front yard, of old Army veterans. Her interest in the South’s people and places was insatiable. Her photography was eventually discovered by a friend and expert in the field who encouraged Mother to haul out the negatives and have them professionally printed for exhibition. Several museums around the Southeast organized shows of her work, and her photographs were printed with accompanying stories in a book called Encounters.
I believe the photograph my mother liked most from her decades of making pictures was one of a woman holding a rooster. Mother said she saw the woman walking down a country road carrying a rooster. Mother didn’t get far down the road before it registered with her that she should take that picture, so she turned around. This is a portion of the way Mother describes the encounter in her book:
She posed with dignity and a fleeting touch of humor, holding the bird against her white shirt to dramatize his bright feathers. When I asked if I might give her a ride, she declined, saying, “I ain’t got far to go.” I wish I knew what happened to the rooster. He appeared to be too young to be consigned to the stew pot. His colorful plumage (the golds and greens purely sparkled in the sunlight) and his long spurs bespoke game chicken ancestry, so he may have been on his way to a fight. Or perhaps a happier future awaited him as lord of the new chicken yard. Whatever his fate, I wish I had a few of his feathers to decorate my own straw hat.
---Kathryn Tucker Windham
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Dilcy Windham Hilley
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