Emmy idolized her great grandmother even though she had never seen the relative who died decades before Emmy was born. Granna Ellie, as she was known, had been famous. At least that’s what the stories had said and Emmy knew them all, treating each one with reverence.
Most kids only know stories about their great grandparents. Emmy heard lots of stories, her Granna Ellie’s name bantered about; sometime humor was attached, other mentions were serious, words like tough and tenacious used to describe her. The expression Emmy liked the most was, “A real sweetheart.” That came from Emmy’s father. She also heard about several episodes describing her Granna Ellie’s work as a professional press photographer. There were things like flashbulbs popping and ugly reactions from some people who didn’t want their picture taken. Emmy had also heard stories that bordered on the macabre. Those episodes dealt with the insane cruelty and bloody carnage of war. Emmy remembered every word of those stories. A pile of photographs, some cracked and faded, had been sandwiched in with the family yarns and Emmy absorbed and cherished each one. What she cherished, even worshipped, was a special keepsake of her Granna Ellie. Emmy’s father had told her that it was a prize from a box of Cracker Jack.
“I don’t know why she kept that old plastic piece of junk,” Emmy’s father had said to her, sliding the small red blue figure of what looked like a sailor boy across the dinner table. “The back is all scratched up,” he continued, sounding bored. He turned it over. “See,” he said, trying to sound like an authority on Cracker Jack prizes. “The back of that prize has several circles looking like gouges dug into it.”
Emmy saw where her father’s index finger mockingly pointed at the flawed reverse side of the sailor boy. She saw it right away and what she saw weren’t scratches or defects. The three circles, one large and two much smaller sitting on top of the larger one weren't a mistake. Emmy couldn’t wait to get to her bedroom and examine the special gift that had once belonged to her Granna Ellie. She would keep the gift forever and remember her great grandmother’s memory for all eternity.
Granna Ellie died when Emmy’s father was twelve, the same age as Emmy. There was nothing forgetful either about Emma Grace Waveland. She went by the name Emmy and was smart beyond her years, looking and acting, according to her father, exactly like her Granna Ellie. “Our daughter’s going to grow up to be a liberated female rebel just like that grandmother of mine,” her father said.
Emma’s father, Walt, had attached several pet nicknames to his daughter. She was Emmy or Gracie, her mother also adopting Gracie because Grace had been her mother’s name. Emmy Lou was used by Emma’s father because of his love for Emmy Lou Harris, the country singer. His latest name for his daughter, one her mother detested, was Bugs, short for Shutter Bug.
“She’s a darned clone of my grandmother,” her father had remarked after seeing his toddler pick up a battered Kodak Baby Brownie camera unceremoniously tossed at her feet by her older brother, Joshua. He had been amazed that she didn’t hurl the scarred, old black plastic relic her brother had found while searching for treasures in the attic crawl space in their house. She managed to toss everything else that made the mistake of getting within her reach.
“Here, you little brat,” Josh had said, dumping the camera at her feet. “Don’t choke on it.”
The entire family was surprised that Emmy didn’t fling the camera back at her brother after trying to stuff the Baby Brownie into her mouth. She crammed anything she could get her tiny hands on into her drooling mouth. What mesmerized her father was watching his daughter place the viewfinder to her right eye as if photography had been her profession, her tiny index finger clicking the silver colored shutter release located under the lens. Walt Waveland, his soothing Caribbean blue eyes sparkling, grinned and said to his wife, Betty, “She’s just like her great grandmother, a darned shutter bug. The next thing we know she’ll be in some exotic, far off land taking pictures for National Geographic.”
Several years later, Walt Waveland couldn’t believe what he had witnessed. Film had gone into the Kodak Brownie; lots of film. Her father had located a rare photography shop that still developed film. What came back in the envelope after the film was developed were not pictures. Each was the portrait of a gifted artist. “The kid’s incredible,” he said to Emmy’s mother. “These look like they should be on the cover of Life magazine,” he said. “Didn’t her great grandmother have one of her pictures on the cover of Life?” More and more rolls of film were developed. Then a triple package of prints came back from the printer. Walt Waveland flipped the pictures onto the front seat of the family SUV into a pile after a quick look. His head went from side-to-side as he picked up the pictures, stuffing them all into one envelope and then letting out a boisterous, out-of-character laugh. He entered the house through the garage and strolled into the kitchen where he saw his wife. “Look at all of the pictures our Emmy took of that worn out shaggy pony at Kiddie Land.” He grinned. “Dang, she’s just got out of kindergarten,” he said, amazed. “She was the only kid in the entire place with a camera. She took all kinds of pictures of that horse; even crawled underneath for different angles. Didn’t care about dirt or manure or let anything get in her way. The only time she stopped was to put more film in her camera. She didn’t care if she got up in that saddle and went for a ride.”
“Didn’t you once tell me about her going off to take pictures for National Geographic?” Betty Waveland asked, her lips curled up but sealed to hide a line of slightly crooked lower teeth that made her self-conscious. “Count your blessings, Walt. Our daughter could be sending those so-called Selfie pictures of herself all over the world on the Internet like that poor friend of hers, Sally Ann. Gosh, oh golly, that child sure got herself in a load of trouble.”
Walt nodded. “Twelve years old and painted up like a twenty year old woman of questionable moral turpitude,” he said, pausing and thinking for a moment. “And, what was the word you used?” he asked. “Oh, yeah, poor child,” he continued then pausing again. “I think the kid was an idiot.”
“Oh, Walt, no child is an idiot.”
“Okay,” replied Walt. “Sally Ann is not an idiot. She just acts like one.” He took a deep breath then said, “The kid’s mother, however, is the prototype for village idiots the world over what with her rationalized lame excuses, finger pointing and blaming the world for her daughter’s colossal screw ups.”
Betty Waveland covered her mouth with an open hand as she laughed. “Like I said, Walt, count our blessings.” She laughed again. “And while you’re counting, I think you’d better start putting aside some of your paycheck so you can take your family on one of those exotic safaris so your daughter can take pictures.”
“Go on a what?” he asked, the surprise in his voice seldom heard.
“Emma has already taken pictures of all of the animals at both the Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoo’s,” Betty said. “Besides, I think she has all but attacked every single person walking a pet within eight square blocks of where we live asking to take pictures.”
Walt’s head went from side-to-side several times before he started to chuckle. “Yeah, can you see me on a safari? What was the name of that old John Wayne movie about capturing animals for zoos?” He thought for a moment. “Hatari, yeah, that was it.” He smiled at his wife. “Can you see Emmy in Africa taking pictures of wild animals?” He broke into a grin. “Next thing you know she’ll want to bring home a baby elephant for a pet.” Laughter exploded from the grin. “And, after we get back from trekking through the jungle, you, my love, can address me as Bwana.”
Betty barely shook her head. “Wonderful,” she said, sounding exasperated. “Now I have a Bwana to join Emmy Lou, Gracie and Bugs.”
Eleanor “Ellie” van Sestern had been held in the highest esteem by many of her fellow professional press photographers; most males admired, even envied her work, too many publicly shunned her. Those in her profession who mattered lauded her for her accomplishments. There were scores of accolades heaped upon Granna Ellie and Emma Grace Waveland had memorized every well documented story. There was a quartet of bulging scrapbooks, each page filled with neatly mounted newspaper articles, certificates, citations, photographs and awards to prove that Eleanor van Sestern really did what she did. Each of the artifacts had been labeled with dates, locations and comments. Back before and during the World War II years, and for decades after, women were left in the shadows of the notoriety spotlight, those lights controlled by men. Eleanor van Sestern had saved the mementoes of her accomplishments from a relatively short but productive career. It was a career that was marked by fingers getting dirt under their nails and several of those nails snapping off as they clawed and dug in way too often in battle. A dozen shoe boxes held the proof until well after her death. Those memories eventually went from the shoe boxes to scrapbooks. Her incredible achievements with a camera had been assembled by Emmy’s father, Walt after he and her mother had gone through the personal belongings of his late grandmother.
“Check all of those boxes in the closet,” Emmy’s mother had said excitedly while newlywed Walt Waveland groused. “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind for our honeymoon,” he said to his wife. “Cleaning out my grandmother’s house doesn’t exactly smell of romance,” he grumbled in his native northern Wisconsin twang, the accent identifiable with growing up next door to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “There ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of old papers and crap in dem dare boxes don’t cha know.” He held up a sheet of paper that looked like it had been rolled up into a ball and then ironed it out by dragging it over the chrome edge of the kitchen table where he sat, his wife seated opposite of him, her view blocked by stacks of boxes.
“Mmmm,” he murmured. “Part of her divorce from dat first husband of hers,” he said softly as if reflecting. “The marriage didn’t last very long,” he continued as he sifted through more papers. “Mmmm,” he mouthed again, a sign of anger apparent. “Dat dare spineless coward used my grandmother for a punching bag before she dumped him and met my grandfather.” Another, “Mmmm,” came from him.
“Oh, Walt calm down,” his wife said. “Let it go. Your grandmother married a nice man.” His wife got up and went to the other side of the table and gently placed a hand on his shoulder.
Walt looked up and smiled at his bride. “Yeah, Grampa Chester was a nice man. Then they saw the letter. It had a picture of the White House embossed across the top. The letter was brief, written in long hand, perfect penmanship, the salutation stating: “My dear Ellie.” Then they saw the first sentence and began having trouble breathing.
Bess and I would like to thank you for the beautiful photograph…
Their eyes stayed glued to the signature for what seemed forever before Walt Waveland muttered, “Holy crap. It’s from dat Truman fella, the President of the United States.” An anemic whistle escaped his lips.
That letter and many more like it, most from various Washington big wigs, appeared to be treated as if Eleanor van Sestern had discovered either the Dead Sea Scrolls or a local Wisconsin supper club that offered an all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry specializing in Walleye. One by one each of the artifacts was glued on page after page of a scrapbook that newlyweds, Walt and Betty Waveland had bought that same day at a Ben Franklin store after discovering what they saw were treasures. Each gem was mounted on a page by the couple as if they were an operating room team performing a delicate surgery. Soon one scrapbook multiplied into a collection of four bulging volumes.
Emmy treated each scrapbook with reverence. All others including family members, her three brothers specifically, who wanted even a simple peek at the collection of treasures were threatened with a verbal warning, some form of physical violence or possible banishment to Siberia if a single page didn’t receive treatment reserved for royalty or a Papal visit. Her three brothers were threatened with more if they didn’t follow her instructions on how to turn each page. Soon, she was the only member of the Waveland family who was allowed to touch the books and her great grandmother became Emma Grace Waveland’s idol, bigger than any rock star. There would never be another in her life.
It didn’t take Emmy’s father long to realize his daughter’s penchant for photography exceeded that of being a whim or a passing fancy. Her special talent appeared to be genetic and a Kodak Baby Brownie camera a part of her DNA. “You took to that camera like it was life itself,” her father had reminded her many times. “You started snapping imaginary pictures the moment your serious brown eyes found the view finder and your tiny fingers attacked that shutter.” Now, as her father sat in his favorite chair, a forest green color Chesterfield style, Emmy sat on the arm nearest him. Her father laughed lovingly and put his arm around his daughter. “I don’t know if you loved that camera as much as that Cracker Jack prize I gave you, the one that belonged to your great grandmother.”
Emmy looked adoringly at her dad and felt his hand slide to her shoulder. “It was more than a Cracker Jack prize, Dad” she said. “It was magical and, I bet, Granna Ellie knew it was. That’s why she kept it.”
“Magical or not, it was the strangest Cracker Jack prize I ever saw,” said her father, giving her shoulder a squeeze.
Emmy smiled, placed her hand on top of his and squeezed it in return. “Those scratched circles on the back of that prize were a picture of Mickey Mouse,” she said, her eyes matching the seriousness of her statement.
“Okay, Emmy Lou, if you insist,” her father said. “I still think those so called circles you call them were a mistake that was made when that sailor came out of that plastic mold.”
Emmy's face radiated love for her father. “It’s definitely Mickey Mouse, Daddy, and that prize is magical.”
“Okay,” her father said. “If you insist it’s magical, it’s magical.” He broke into a grin. “Here’s something else that’s magical,” he said, handing her a brown paper bag that looked like something her father used to take his lunch to work.
Her expression did the asking; the asking aided by the heavy weight of the bag.
“Your Brownie camera has seen better days,” he said, watch-ing his daughter’s fingers gently tracing the shape inside the bag.
Emmy removed an old camera from the bag and didn’t say a word. Her fingers Brailled the rectangular box shaped camera that had more handles, dials and lenses than she ever saw. Her eyes continued to ask.
“It’s just like one of the cameras your great grandmother used to use,” he said. “It’s called a Rollieflex. It’s not as fancy as these new digital things and there’s no phone attached like the one your friend, Sally Ann uses, but, in its day, it was considered the Cadillac of cameras,” he continued, beaming. “I found it at an estate sale.”
“You said Granna Ellie used one just like this?” asked Emmy, her question barely audible.
Her father nodded. “I think you can still buy film,” he said. “And you still have that darkroom I made for you down in the basement so you can develop it.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Emmy said, jumping up from the table and wrapping her arms around her father. “The first picture I take will be of you.”
“Great,” said her father. “One picture and you’ll break the camera.”
Emmy wasted no time in finding out about her camera. Google helped her. She devoured every word and picture that came up on her computer screen about the Rollieflex camera her father had given her. She appeared almost relentless in her pursuit and choice of subjects. Her Baby Brownie wasn’t forgotten. It sat in a place of prominence on her night table shelf in her bedroom. Also not forgotten was the new digital camera her parents had given her for her birthday a year earlier. Somehow, the simplicity of pointing a camera, pushing down a button and seeing a picture in an instant couldn’t compete with a light meter, f-stop setting and her belief in her special Cracker Jack prize depicting Mickey Mouse. She also believed that what Ellie van Sestern did with a camera was both spectacular and captivating. Her great grandmother just didn’t take pictures. She created life. Her pictures looked more alive than the actual subject in the view finder. Her photographed faces didn’t show lines, they depicted age and experience along with hidden emotions. Her lens unearthed those emotions exposing buried secrets. She captured epic sagas, each frame of film depicting artistic creativity framed with respect and painstaking dignity. She had the knack for catching on film what most eyes would never see. It was her great grandmother’s form of magic. Some eyes, however, eyes that recognized special talents, also recognized Ellie van Sestern’s form of magic. The stories that identified and elevated Ellie van Sestern into a world reserved for males exploded and she never looked back.
Stories about Emmy’s great grandmother were documented with facts. She had been the first woman photographer ever to be allowed to cover the White House. That was near the end of World War II when Harry Truman was president.