A precious moment captured then and now

In the old black-and-white photograph with the ruffled edge, my mother is not yet 30, and I am the sun-kissed, halo-haired child straddling her hip. Mother loves to unearth this photo from the drawer of her secretary desk to show her children and grandchildren.

We call it "The Four Marys," because it shows four generations of women in my family, all firstborn daughters, and all named Mary: my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and me. (I was named Mary Margaret, after my two grandmothers - and all the other Marys on my mother's side of the family - but was called Peggy to avoid confusion.

In the snapshot, I'm 2, and I have a studious frown on my round face. I'm staring into my cupped hand as if Tinkerbell sits there gazing up at me. I'm pointing into my palm with my other hand. Mother remembers that just before this treasured photograph was taken, my great-grandmother had led me to her garden and let me choose any flower that I wanted.

Mother says it was a columbine blossom, and that it captivated me so much that I refused to lift my face to the camera. Columbines still charm me; they look like exploded pastel firecrackers.

My father had gone away on a ship to fight in World War II. Studying the photo, you can tell that the war had already had an effect on women's fashions. My great-grandmother's skirt, made of some dark material, is voluminous and drops nearly to her ankles. In contrast, my grandmother and mother wear tight skirts that barely cover their knees. Scarcity of fabric dictated those shorter fashions.

A high-necked dark blouse with long full sleeves, and a fringed shawl in a muted floral pattern cover my great-grandmother's torso. My mother and grandmother wear skimpy blouses. Grandma's snug, low-cut top hugs her ample, matronly figure. The tatting at the collar and the edges of the sleeves - three layers deep all around - was done by her own hand.

My mother wears a thin cotton voile blouse with cutwork embroidery across the bodice and at the borders of the short, scalloped sleeves.

My great-grandmother's hair, never cut, and swept back into a soft bun at the nape of her neck, is dark, dark, dark. It occurs to me for the first time that she must have dyed it. Grandma's hair is short and crimped tightly by one of the then-new permanent-wave formulas.

Holding the photo, Mother reminds me of the fact that, up to the just a few years earlier, her mother had never cut her hair, either. When she came home with a short bobbed style, carrying her four-foot-long braid in a paper bag, her husband was so upset that he didn't speak to her for weeks.

My mother looks like one of the girls in the old Breck shampoo ads, with her naturally curly hair framing her 1940s radiant complexion, painted lips, and pearl screw-on earrings. All those rosy-cheeked Breck girls looked like Raphael's angels without the extra poundage. Indeed, my mother is far too thin in the photograph. Concern for my dad's safety, combined with the effects of wartime rationing, account for her hipbones jutting through the fabric at the front of her skirt.

Behind the four of us in the photo are a pear tree and a flower garden. In the distance stands the farmhouse where my grandmother and her five sisters were raised. My mother spent every summer of her youth there.

That flower garden between the dirt road and the house was my great-grandmother's private domain. Several times a week she donned a wide-brimmed hat and, with a pair of shears and a broad flat basket, she wandered her own special Eden. She took her time, enjoying herself and the early-morning coolness as she cut enough blooms to reconstitute the many bouquets within her rambling, three-story Victorian.

NOT long ago, my parents visited, and my daughter (whose name is Jill, not Mary!) stopped by with one of her girls in tow.

"Oh, Mary, let's take a picture of the four generations of women in the family," my father suggested, "and you can set it next to 'The Four Marys.' "

We trooped outside and lined up in front of my garden with the purple-leafed plum tree off to one side. As we squinted into the sun, my husband fiddled with the camera's focus.

"Say 'cheese,' " my dad said from the sidelines, when everyone seemed ready.

"Wait!" I said, remembering something important.

I turned to the garden, plucked a columbine blossom, and handed it to my granddaughter.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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