The Day the Baby Fell in Love
by Julia Sneden
In our living room are two photographs inherited from my husband’s maternal grandmother. They hang above an old family desk, and are pictures of his great great grandparents, Sarah Pulling Lane French (1818-1899) and her husband, Joseph Henry French (1815-1876). These are portrait shots, head and shoulders only, handsomely set in deep, oval, 10” mahogany frames.
The picture of Sarah shows her to be a slender woman, her hair parted in the center with two knots or coiled braids at the top on either side of the part, and the rest pulled back by a ribbon around her head. Her face is turned slightly to her right, her light eyes gazing into the distance. She appears remote, without expression. She has a high forehead, thin lips, and a rather square, firm jaw. It's not a face to intrigue you, but neither is it as formidable as some I've seen from that era. According to my own great grandmother, (born in 1833), one had to sit absolutely still with one's head in a clamp, not blinking for what seemed like forever, when one posed for those early photographs. No doubt that probably explains why so many of our ancestors come off looking positively grim.
Joseph also looks to the right. He's a proper pater familias, with a beard neatly trimmed, but he has the same curious lack of facial expression. He wears a suit with a vest, and a bow tie (the real, hand-tied item).
We know quite a bit about them. They were New Englanders, born and reared in Massachusetts. Sarah descended from a long line of proper Puritans, including a Mayflower passenger. We don't know as much about Joseph's family, but he himself must have been a good businessman, because he supported a large family. Apparently he owned the whole block where they lived in Rockland, MA, because as their children grew up and married, Sarah and Joseph had houses built on the property for them.
My husband's grandmother, Charlotte, grew up surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, all next door, through the hedge, or just around the corner. Her grandmother Sarah (Joseph was by then dead) kept a benevolent if stern eye on them all. She was a deeply religious woman, a devout Baptist. The entire family gathered at her house for dinner each Sunday after church, and following the meal, all were expected to sit quietly in the parlor, and not engage in any frivolity, inasmuch as respect for the Sabbath was the priority. Charlotte later related to me that Jane, her mother, would think up reasons for her small family to leave such gatherings early, so that the children could go home and play, one assumes quietly and indoors, well out of Grandmother's sight.
But the photos on our walls give no hint of such strictures and tensions. To us, they're just old family photos in pretty, oval frames. As such, they're part of our decor, and we're all so used to them that we've rarely thought about the people in them .... that is, until the night the baby fell in love with Sarah.
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