My 5 Headaches

One day I found a strange old photo.

I found it because I was looking for it, or something mysterious and wonderful anyway, and I wasn’t disappointed. Loose among the jumble of antiques–a photograph tucked away in a forgotten corner of the consignment shop. Price: $1.00.

It features an outdoor birthday party. Five of its seven subjects bear a label, written in a flow of lucid cursive: yard boy, laundress, cook, nurse, maid.

Certainly I’d never seen a picture quite like it–and then I looked at the back. In the same neat hand, an unnamed author wrote to an anonymous recipient about her “5 headaches.”

"This picture was made on Earnie's birthday and is horrible but I wanted you to see my five headaches. The little boy is a neighbor - Carl Williams. You can't see the ake on the table. Howard has moved the packing box, now that we have a good picture of it and the nurse's shoes which she had out to dry. The jungle effect is only a grape vine over the patio."

My first reaction, I admit, was laughter. I showed the picture to some friends with the quip, “If I had a ‘yard boy, laundress, cook, nurse, and maid,’ I don’t believe I’d have anything left to complain about!”

Still, I didn’t buy this old photo for a laugh. I wanted to find these people, to know more about the photo’s context, to identify “Earnie” and Carl Williams, and to name the five domestic employees, but the caption proved long on attitude and short on facts. I couldn’t assume the photo originated in this area, and the neighbor’s name, Carl Williams, is too common to search without any location perimeters. The clothing styles suggest 1945-1955 to me, but that grants only the roughest guide for the ages of those pictured. All the five had to tell me about themselves, they brought with them into the picture.

What do they have to say?

An old photo of five domestic employees and two young children at an outdoor birthday party.

They keep secrets in their smiles.

The yard boy looks almost shy, dipping his chin like that. He isn’t dressed for yard work, but then, it is a birthday party. Perhaps on this day, he was a guest. Maybe he’s collecting his nerve to ask the nurse if she’d like to go for a soda next weekend. She does look a bit feisty with that toothy smile, positively delighted to be posing for a picture. She alone doesn’t seem bothered by the sun in her eyes.

I think the laundress might be shy, as well. If the photographer ordered the taller people to the back row, then the maid would have joined her and the cook would have stood in the front. That didn’t happen, which leaves me to guess that the laundress naturally gravitated to a demur position. She does offer a willing smile as she peeks around the nurse’s hair, but the cook is frowning. Maybe it’s only the sun in her eyes. She appears a bit older than the others. I doubt this was her first job.

The maid has her curly hair swept to one side, revealing the tiny detail that she is wearing earrings. I imagine she is a tiny-details kind of person, one who notices things and can organize anything. I can’t say why exactly, but if she has siblings, I’d guess she’s probably the eldest.

What were their names? Who were their families, or were any of them alone in the world? Did they call their co-workers friends? What had each of them done or neglected to do to earn the label “headache,” and did they guess their employer’s thin regard?

I suspect that the cook knew.

Even so, we can’t know for sure.

The more I studied this old photo, the less I felt like laughing about the callous way five people were stripped of their identities and deliberately devalued by their employer. The image identifies each by title only, though those jobs have ceased, and preserves their likenesses nameless, sold for a dollar.

But how priceless would this same old photo be to a child or grandchild of any of these five, if only their names were known?

It’s been a while.

Yes, yes it has been.

Last year was rough, my friends, but even though I claim to dislike resolutions, my sentimental side sparks in January. A clean slate, a fresh start. Right now, it’s snowing in Georgia–again. Miracle upon miracle.

So once again, I’ve plotted a course for the new year, knowing full well that the detour routes aren’t even on the map. I don’t have a lot of posts planned for 2018, though. If you’d like to stay in touch, my newsletter or Facebook page are your best bet. Hope to see you there. 🙂




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