It’s Presidents Day as I write this column, and I’ve just returned from a cold, wet drive to Madison, Georgia where I dined at Cracker Barrel on a righteous plate of veggies, biscuits and blackberry jelly. That’s a bit of a hike from Covington, but I wanted some good food, and I wanted to test out the new Pirelli P4 tires I had installed on Lazarus, my back-from-the-dead, ancient BMW. The ride was silky smooth and the folks at Cracker Barrel had a roaring fire going — one of the other reasons I was willing to trek to Madison on a day that’s a dismal reminder of Old Man Winter’s bad attitude. If a restaurant offers veggies, biscuits, hot coffee, and a toasty fire, then it’s guaranteed to get my business.
As I sat at a table snacking and slurping, I kept coming back to the same focal point I do every time I’m there: an old photograph of an unsmiling woman which is among the collection of antiques and ephemera common to all Cracker Barrels. Beyond unsmiling, she can more accurately be described as “bewildered,” based on the look in her eyes and her general facial demeanor. This photo — probably from the early 1900s — always captures my attention. I look at the woman’s face, and think, “Is that what life was like back then? Were they all wearing the same hang-dog look, staring into the camera as if they were staring into oblivion?” The photo does not entice one to long for her era, and if I were running a time-travel service, I’d certainly not use this photo on any brochures. As an aside, the best time-travel brochures would be ones that picture a dead Adolf Hitler and you standing over him with a smoking machine gun, but that’s for another column. I ate my veggies, and I drank my coffee, and I began to wonder just what was on the old gal’s mind as the photographer took her portrait. Maybe she was scared. Photography was still a novelty back then. Maybe she was “being serious.” Perhaps her family had said, “Oh, Clara! You mustn’t look as if you’re having fun. Be stern! Be pious!” Or maybe she feared for her eternal soul, wondering if the photograph would qualify as a “graven image,” and she’d be in violation of the second Commandment. People knew the Ten Commandments back then. And they constantly worried about their eternal souls. This gal looked worried.
I don’t know who this now departed woman is, or how she ended up hanging in a restaurant, but it causes me to think: Is it possible that one of my relatives is hanging in a cafe somewhere, frowning down on the local biscuit munchers?
Knowing my family tree’s roots, we’d be more apt be hanging in a rural North Carolina gas station or being used to stop up the draft in a dilapidated old barn. Would my relative be smiling? Perhaps. But more likely they’d be serious and pious and staring into oblivion as the style dictated. I think it’s only recently that we’ve learned to lie to the camera, to hide our anger and worries and “Just smile!” for the millionth photo taken since birth. Back in the old day, lying was a sin, and I guess it extended to the photos. “I ain’t smilin’ ‘cause I ain’t got nothin’ to smile about! You want a picture, you just take what you get, and do it fast so I can get back to the washing and ironing!” A squeeze, a flash of ignited powder, a stench of smoke, and you’ve been captured for all eternity, for your family to display above the mantel until something tragic happens and you end up purchased in an estate sale and hung by a tractor ad or an old kitchen gadget that was all the rage in 1921. And there she is, looking down from on high, watching the diners, counting the biscuits, and probably making a mental note that I use far too much blackberry jelly for someone of my lowly stature. Whippersnapper!
David McCoy is a lifetime resident of “The Glorious South” and a repeat winner of the Georgia Press Association’s Joe Parham Trophy for his humor column, Pecan Pie for the Mind. David lives in Covington, Georgia but can often be found among the North Georgia mountains, depending on the weather and the availability of clean towels and fresh, hot coffee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.