As I dug around in a box of old photos that appeared to be relics from my mother’s family, I stumbled across one I’m certain I had never seen before. It’s a photo of a man in a WWI Army uniform standing near a river, hand on hip, cigarette in hand, with a rakish grin on his face.
Could it be?
In January (Whispers from the Past) I wrote about my efforts to develop a distinctive voice for my maternal grandfather, who is at the heart of a novel I’ve been working on in fits and starts. In that blog, I indicated that I did not have a photo of him.
Or did I?
When I found the photo, I immediately flipped it over to see if there was a name scrawled on the back. What I found instead was another photo: a photo of two young women smiling broadly as they engaged in what appeared to be an intimate tête-à-tête, cross-legged on a well-maintained lawn. Judging by the dress, I put the date in the early 1900s.
I was not certain that I recognized the women, who appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties. On a hunch, I sent the photo to my cousin Bob McWilliams. He immediately identified the woman on the right as his grandmother, Mary Marrs McWilliams, born in 1894. In my mind, I then felt fairly certain that the woman on the left was her older sister, my grandmother, Nell Marrs Board, born in 1890. (I give both women’s married names, but I doubt either was married at the time of this photo.) I searched and eventually found other photos of Nell from that general era and now feel certain she is indeed the young lady on the left.
My heart started pounding. Had I finally found a photo of Nell’s scoundrel husband, William Lyons Board, the man who abandoned Nell and her infant daughter, my mother, shortly after the baby was born? (Contrarily, had Nell’s family run him off for some reason? Had they forbidden her to keep any photos of him?) Had Nell glued the smaller photo of Lyons to the back of this innocent photo of her and her sister, so she could keep some small memento of him?
If it is indeed Lyons, is the river the Ohio River near where he trained at Camp Zachary Taylor south of Louisville before being shipped off to France? Or might it be a site near Le Havre or Cherbourg, two French cities he passed through en route to the limited action he saw? Is it the Isle River, which runs through West Perigueux, where he trained in September 1918? Or the Cher River on the outskirts of Saint-Aignan, where Lyons’ unit joined the 1st Depot Division and were later redeployed as replacements for combat divisions at the front?
At the moment, I have no way of knowing.
My good friend Chuck Camp, who has devoted a massive number of hours to researching this mystery, summarized his conclusions this way:
“So [Nell] had this picture of her beloved sister, and hidden behind it is a picture of the man she married. She couldn't bear to throw it away, as she had so many others. But she couldn't bear to have it out all the time, either, so she hid it.
“How poignant, how romantic, how sad. Here he is in his uniform, as he was in 1918, the dashing young man who came home from the war and swept her off her feet. And now, 100 years later, his little girl's little girl has found him and brought him home again.”