She can’t recall exactly the time of year when the Olan Mills man called, but my mother thinks it was probably in the summer, since she was at home during the day. She can’t recall his name, what he looked like, or what he drove, but even today, she still has trouble retelling the incident without the emotions washing over her afresh, reawakening the pain and rejection she felt three-quarters of a century ago.
My mother grew up in a two-story clapboard house on Danbury Avenue in Wellsville, Ohio, a tiny river town just north of Wheeling, West Virginia. Wellsville was twenty-five blocks long then, before the new bypass shaved three blocks off the south end of town, with ten churches, eleven bars, two grocery stores, an elementary school, and a high school. It’s barely a mile wide, sandwiched between the Ohio River and the hills to the west. The area was settled by British, German, and Italian immigrants drawn there by the plentiful work in the steel, coal and clay mining, and pottery industries. On the west side of town, the mountain rises quickly, a thousand feet or so, where it stands like a sentinel, guarding the peaceful hamlet from the summer storms that blow in from the flat corn and wheat fields of central Ohio.
A constant stream of smoke drifts from the nearby potteries, brickyards, and coal-fired power plants and floats downriver, sprinkling fly ash like fairy dust over the towns to the south. At night, the whistles of the freight trains echo off the mountain and sound like they are coming through the bedroom walls as the town’s 5,000 residents drift off to sleep. On Friday nights, the muted pounding from the high school band drums wafts from the football stadium at the south end of town, punctuated by intermittent bursts of cheering crowds.
My grandfather, George Ernest Culp, was a railroad man, one of the fortunate few in the town able to work regularly during the Depression. Unfortunately, much of his paycheck never made it to the dinner table. What didn’t end up at the cashier window at Waterford Park racetrack ultimately ended up in the urinal at the West End Tavern or the Busy Bee Lounge.
I have only a few recollections of my grandfather, and they are fading, since he died when I was ten. I remember him sitting at his kitchen table with his two everpresent accoutrements: his bean bag ashtray with the copper bottom overflowing with filterless Camel cigarette butts, and the portable radio tuned to KDKA-AM out of Pittsburgh, “bringing you the best of Pirates baseball.” Nature had given Grandpa a large nose to begin with, and it had become even more elongated, red, and bulbous from the overuse of his beverage of choice, red wine. During his retirement, he would seldom leave the kitchen table. Day after day, he would sit there, playing solitaire, listening to the radio, smoking, and grunting.
My grandmother, Margaret Ruth Culp, did her best to raise six children on what was left of her husband’s paycheck each week. When he went through a sober spell, though, they managed to get by, and on rare occasions, there might even be a little left over. This may have been one of those rare occasions when the photographer came to call, and he was intent on getting the surplus.
As my mother recalls, he drove up to the house, got out of his car and knocked on the front door, doffing his hat when my grandmother opened the screen door. He took a small bow, and introduced himself.
“I couldn’t help but notice, Mrs. Culp, that you have toys in your yard. That couldn’t mean that you have little ones running around here, could it?” he smiled obsequiously.
“Yes. This is my daughter, Jane,” Grandma said somewhat suspiciously from inside the front door, as my mother peered out from behind her legs, “and she’s got five brothers and sisters, but most of them are older.”
“Well, isn’t she a cutie?” he said. “You know Mrs. Culp, these years really are the most precious, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I suppose so,” Grandma responded, still a little leery of the stranger.
“And wouldn’t it be a travesty if we had nothing to remember those years by, Mrs. Culp?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, the most precious gifts we can give our children are memories. And we at Olan Mills would like to help you. And right now we’re offering a free photo just for taking the time to look at our products. Now if you let me show you some of our packages…” he said as he leaned toward the door.
“I really don’t think we’re interested,” my grandmother said, closing the door on him.
“But we really do have some very reasonable packages,” he insisted. “If you can just give me five more minutes of your time, I think you’ll see what a great bargain this is.” My grandmother just stared at him. “They’re only young once,” he said.
“OK. Five minutes,” she conceded as she let him in the door.
“I don’t think you’ll regret it, Mrs. Culp.”
The man continued talking as he entered the house. “You know, Mrs. Culp, in the three short years since Olan and Mary Mills started this company in a tiny office down in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we have become one of the fastest growing portrait companies in the country. And do you know why?” he asked, pulling out his paperwork from his briefcase. “It’s because we offer quality. And that’s what Americans appreciate, Mrs. Culp. Quality. We have quality products and quality people working for us. Now our basic packages start at….”
He laid out his samples and turned on the charm. He informed her that he had his camera in the car and would be happy to set it up take a nice photo of little Janey if she were so inclined. After a few moments of gentle coercion, my grandmother relented, and the man went to his car.
As he set up his equipment, my grandmother took my mother upstairs, put on her best Sunday dress, curled her hair, and put a little rouge on her cheeks. My mother trembled with anticipation as she descended the stairs and the photographer sat her atop the old upright piano in the living room. The flash bulbs popped several times and the man packed up his equipment, handed her his business card, and left with a polite “thank you.”
The neighborhood kids often picked on my mother when she was small, as did her own brothers and sisters. They made fun of her “go-funny” eye, her large teeth, or the way she mispronounced words. But that morning, for once, she felt special and pretty.
A few days later, my grandfather came home from a long trip on the railroad and informed his wife that she wasn’t wasting any of his money on photographs. When the photographer returned a week or so later, he tried to sell my grandmother a package. He spread the black and white proofs on the table as my mother looked on, wondering which one she would get to keep. Remembering what her husband had told her, she tried her best to decline the offers and still retain her dignity.
“I don’t think…” she said “I mean, we don’t have a lot of money in our budget right now for pictures. But I thank you for your time, and I would like to take advantage of the free photo that you offered.”
“Pardon me?” the man asked, now a little miffed.
“You know. You said last week we’d get one free photo just for our time,” she persisted.
“Mrs. Culp,” he replied sternly, “You get the free photo after you buy a package. It says so very clearly in the fine print.” He continued to press her, but to no avail. Finally, he said, “Now am I to understand that you are not going to purchase any of our fine products?”
“No, I’m afraid we just can’t…”
Before she could finish, the salesman reached over to the stack of beautiful black and white photos lying on the kitchen table. My mother was standing next to the table. She could see herself in the fold of the proofs, smiling ear to ear in her Sunday dress and dark black curls, atop the piano. It was the first time anyone had taken a nice photograph of her. They couldn’t even afford school pictures. While my grandmother was still talking, the man said curtly, “Fine!”
It must have seemed as though he were moving in slow motion as my mother watched the man pick up the 8 X 10 glossies and rip them into halves, then in quarters, and again in eighths before he threw the tattered remnants back into his bag with a smirk and said, “Good day, madam.”
My mother and grandmother watched him walk out of the house, down the front steps, and get in his car. The image of him began to blur in my mother’s eyes as he drove away. It was quiet enough to hear the drops falling on the wooden floor.
They both stood at the door for a long time as they watched him fade into the distance. They said nothing, but the words he uttered earlier still burned in their ears: Quality, Mrs. Culp. Quality.
Randy Rudder received an MA in English literature from Tennessee State University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Memphis. In 2007, he was awarded the Tennessee Arts Commission Fellowship for nonfiction writing. He is editor and publisher of the Country Music Reader, a muisic anthology containing articles, essays, and interviews with top country and bluegrass artists. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Country Weekly, The Nashville Business Journal, Nashville Lifestyles, Keyboard Magazine, Today's Christian, The Nashville Scene, Bluegrass Unlimited, and others.