Saturday, 12 November 2016

Old Photographs

One should always remember to respect one's elders.

I visited my great aunt at the start of this year. She had just reached one hundred. Her memory for the distant past is still good; and she likes to look through old photographs and talk about the people she knew. The photographs are countless, especially since the family from time to time has made reproductions of the oldest ones, from the Victorian period; and they are all haphazardly mixed together in different collections, which change every time someone tries to impose their own order on the confusion by starting a new folder or album. That means that each time I visit I see a different set of photographs.

One of the ones that turned up this year might be interesting for this blog. It was a photograph of a woman whom my great aunt had known in the late thirties and early forties. The woman, Amy McCowan, was a former teacher who had taught in Japan when she was a young woman, and later in Czechoslovakia. At the time that my great aunt knew her, Miss McCowan (as the family knew her) was staying as a lodger in the family's house in York. The house was destroyed in an air raid at some point during the second world war. Everyone survived; but the family had to move, and they had no contact with Miss McCowan after the war.

The picture my great aunt passed to me was an old sepia coloured photograph in a cardboard frame, from an Osaka photographer whose name seemed to be S. Yuki.  A young Japanese woman in Japanese dress was standing next to a seated western woman in western dress, which still seems to show some Japanese influence. I turned it over and read the pencil writing on the back. It was a little hard to read, as the light pencil hardly differed from the cardboard it was written on. As far as I could tell, it said, "Mrs Ando paid to have this picture of Isuneko and myself taken because she wanted to send it to you Amy", with a gap between "you" and "Amy" at the end.

I wasn't sure of the name of the Japanese woman; and Google's question "Did you mean Tsuneko?" is probably pointing to the right reading.

I puzzled a bit whether the text was writted by Amy or to Amy. If Amy had written and signed the photograph, then it would be a picture sent out to someone she knew in Japan, probably a former student at the school or college; but in that case why did she have the picture when she lived in York twenty or thirty years later? Could it be that it was sent to Amy after she left the school? In that case the people in the photograph would be her former colleagues, two other teachers at the school.

"Are you sure this is Miss McCowan?" I asked, showing my great aunt the writing on the back.

"Well I think it is." She looked at the photo again. "We had another photograph from when she was living with us. Now where was that?"

 That started a new search through the various boxes and albums; but nothing turned up and we ended up getting diverted into talking about the other people whose photographs we could find. I felt bad about having carelessly expressed my doubts about my great aunt's memory, and was happy enough that she seemed to have let the question drop; but when her daughter came by a little later, she asked her her opinion about it.

"But I never knew her. That was before my time," she said, after hearing the question. She took a close look at the picture and said, "Actually you can tell it isn't her." She left a little pause to build up suspense, then went on, "She's wearing a wedding ring; and it was always 'Miss McCowan' wasn't it? So it can't be her."

"Oh yes," said my great aunt, peering at the hand in the photograph, "Well I really did think it was her."

My great aunt rarely gets annoyed; but her tone then was full of dissatisfaction at her own bad memory.

That was that for the moment. But some months later I called in again; and this time one of the photographs of Miss McCowan in the back garden of the house in York turned up.

As you can see, it seems to be fairly clearly the same person as the young woman in the first photograph. The handsome, slightly stern features have grown a bit thinner and the expression a bit tougher, as you might expect over a lifetime of work in various countries. I'd guess the woman in the first photograph is about thirty years younger than the second one, which would date it to the end of the Meiji period or the start of the Taishou period (that is around 1912). That fits with what my great aunt told me of Miss McCowan. As to the text on the back, I guess that it was the draft of the message that she sent with different copies of the photograph (perhaps with some added personalising text), and this was the one she kept for herself.

And the wedding ring? Looking again at the first photograph, I saw that the ring had a jewel. "Maybe it was an engagement ring."

"Well you know, I remember she was engaged; and the young man died."

So that disposed of the rest of the mystery (if you can call my unwarranted suspicions a mystery). Engagements broken off by death were probably a lot more common back then; and of course this was around the time of the first world war and the influenza epidemic of 1918, which took so many lives.

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