The Photo

Victoria Kemsley

Image of an abandoned prairie homestead consisting of several woodframe buildings. A two-storey house is the largest building on the left, with two smaller buildings to the right of it, and another to the far right partially obscured by trees. A foreground of green grass and scrubby trees makes up the bottom third of the composition; above it is a darkening sky with a hint of sun peeking out from gathering clouds. The slanted sun casts a warm glow on the homestead.

Photo Credit: Jeff Wallace/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“No, Hugh. No.” Melvina fell into a coughing fit. She signaled with her hand to wait. Hugh waited. “I’ll not have my children remember their mother like this. Sick, skinny, coughing. No.” Melvina wiped the blood from her mouth.

“Your children will remember you for the loving, beautiful mother that you always are. Come outside and have your picture. The whole family. We have never had a photograph with the whole family.” Hugh pulled Melvina’s Sunday dress out of the cupboard and put it on her bed. “That Resilient Realistic Pictures fella is not going to be here forever.” Hugh started to put the dress on her as gently as he could.

She shook it off again.

“I get the feeling… Hugh… that… you are not listening to me.” She started to cough again.
This argument had been going on for near on a week. Ever since they heard that an itinerant photographer was coming to Starling County. Such excitement. All their neighbors were chattering about what they were going to wear, and getting haircuts, and comparing notes about the best place on their properties to pose for the picture. There was no other topic on the streets in town. Just yesterday the good ladies of the Women’s Institute had been over to the farm for their bi-weekly visit. They about drove Melvina to put a pillow over her ears.

“I think my blue hat, don’t you, Cilia?” Mrs. Jones checked out her reflection as she swept the kitchen floor.

Mabeline, the teenager that worked for her, held the handmade dustpan. “No hat for me, Mrs. Jones. My curly hair will be piled high with a ribbon. The wind will be the ruin of the entire picture. Pray for me.” Mabeline was almost as pretty as she thought she was.

“It’s going to be fight getting my boys into a bath in the morning. I’m going to take my bath the night before so I can be ready. He won’t be at my house until Thursday, so there’s time for them to get used to the idea.” Mrs. Jones shouted more than spoke. Probably due to her years in that factory in Calgary before Tim Jones convinced her to make her life as a farmer.

“Hand me down that flour, will you, Della? This stew is like weak tea. I’ll stop by after supper, Mabeline, and wind the rags in your hair tomorrow. You can sleep in them, and take them out gently, mind. Your long hair will just flow like a river. You are so lucky.”

“I’m tempted to wear my wedding dress,” Sally Ferrell declared. “I really am. May as well get two uses out of the darn thing. That is a fine looking stew, Lily. Nothing like your fine rabbit stews, Melvina, but just dandy.”

“First thing I ever learned to cook on my own.” Melvina sat up and tried a little smile. “He was senior cook just before I came away. He declared that he was afraid that my new husband was going to starve to death if he’d had to survive on the state of my cooking. Non-cooking really.”

The ladies talked of nothing but the photographer for near on the whole hour of the visit. They never stopped working, though. Sweeping, cleaning the windows, freshening her sheets, cooking up a big rich meal for the family, complete with biscuits, cake, and pie for tomorrow, beating the one rug the McLarens owned. Young Mrs. Lawrence took all the dishes off the shelves and scrubbed them down while declaring herself too ugly to have her picture taken at all. Melvina was exhausted by the time they left. Nice though. So much happy life in her house.

Hugh was never much of a talker, but he stayed determined to have his way on the photo session. He had met his match in Melvina though. Other wives did just what their husbands said to do. Melvina knew her place to be a full partner. In this, and so many matters, she stood her ground.

“I want a nice picture of my husband and my babies. Right here on my table. I can look at it all day long. I’ll hear you outside and just look at you. Sandy’s new sweater is all finished now. Slick their hair down, Hugh.” Melvina still had enough energy to sew on the last of the cardigan’s buttons.

“You will be in the picture. The end.” Hugh stacked the wood by the stove.

“Helen can dress Phyllis if you can manage Jeannie. Helen can wear her little church dress. It’s a tiny bit small, but will look just fine if she wears that pretty apron that Jean Guilliame gave her last Christmas.” She bit the button thread off. “Do this for me, Hugh. I need my family right now. Will you do this for me?”

Hugh stopped arguing. She was right, of course. She did not look like the beautiful girl in that portrait she had sent to him during the war. Inside she was the same, but the outside was pale and boney and would break your heart to see.

“They want a photograph of their mother.” Hugh fed the stove to get it roaring for supper.

“Hand me my English box, please, my good Hughie. You know the one.”

Melvina’s mother didn’t write her very often, but once Dahlia came to accept that they were never coming back, she started sending little treasures over. The wooden box was Dahlia’s most prized possession. Lady Winston had uncharacteristically given the staff gifts on the occasion of the King’s coronation in 1911. Chinese boxes were all the rage then. Dahlia used her little box to hide her treasures and Melvina continued that tradition. At the moment it held the princely sum of $2.17 that it had taken her nearly a decade to accrue. The most recent $1.50 coming from the last sweater she had been able to knit. It was not a perfect fit despite Lesley Wilson declaring it to be.

“I believe he said two dollars, didn’t he, Hugh?” Melvina opened her little box.

“I have the two dollars. You don’t need to…” He started to shut her little box.

“I know you do, my husband. But let me do this with my own money, will you? Then you can tell my children that their mother gave them this gift. That will be better memory than a picture of a weak, sick and sad woman.” She carefully counted out all the pennies and nickels and one true dollar bill.

Hugh put the money in his pocket and left her to finish his chores.

When the day came for the photograph, Hugh decided that the picture was to be taken with the wide open prairie for a background, not the house or the barn as some people chose. He wasn’t so house proud yet. The boys wore the matching sweaters Melvina had made. Archie’s was, of course, worn by Sandy first. Melvina combed everybody’s hair one by one and had a quiet moment with each of them before they went outside.

“You’ll give your biggest smile, won’t you, Helen? You have such a pretty smile, my big girl. If you smile, your sisters can’t help but join in.”

“Jeannie, sweet girl, you are going to make a picture today with your Daddy, won’t that be fun? Then your pretty picture will sit right here on my table. I’ll look at it all the time, even when you aren’t here. I like that idea. Do you like that idea?”

“Yes, Mama.” Jean was just a toddler, but she could feel that this was a big moment. She started to cry. She snuggled with her mother until the last minute.

“Archie, don’t be frightened. It doesn’t hurt to have your picture taken.”

Archie squirmed as his mother gently combed his hair while he perched on her bed.

“You see my picture over there, Archie? I had to sit still, still, still. I’ll tell you a secret. Do you want to hear a secret just between you and me?”

Archie nodded.

“See how my arm is set across the front of me? Would you believe it? That is hiding a big pole that I had to put my chin on so I wouldn’t move. Isn’t that funny? See how my other hand is hiding the bottom of my chin? That’s hiding a metal platform. Mama’s whole chin sitting on a platform?”

Archie started to smile a little with the thought that he had a secret just for him and Mama.

“Back in those days you had to sit still for hours it seemed. But aren’t you lucky? You can just stand big and tall on the McLaren farm without a pole and smile like you heard a good joke. Can you do that, Archie?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“It’s up to you, Sandy. You are my big boy. My firstborn. I couldn’t be more proud at how big and strong you are growing. Almost as big as your Daddy now! You will show the others how to act, won’t you? Big and strong. Stand tall, my handsome son. I want to see if you can be taller than Daddy in the picture. I bet you will be. Let’s not tell him until we see the picture next week. It will be our secret.”

It was no good. They stood there, tall and straight as they promised. Everyone clean, shaved, combed, ironed, but sad. No one could smile knowing that Mama was waiting in her bed. Listening carefully for what was happening outside. They all tried to muster a smile like they said they would, but when the photographer came back the next week with the picture, it was clear. Hugh held Jeannie in one arm and the other two little girls leaned up against him. The boys stood on either side of him, staring at the camera suspiciously. Not a smile between the six of them. This was a sad family. With a missing mother.

“Well, look at this!” Melvina exclaimed when she saw the photograph. “My fetching family. You boys look so grown up. I don’t believe it! You look like a mirror of your father. I imagine when you grow up no one will be able to tell the difference between you.”

“Thank you, Mama,” Archie managed to squeak out before he ran out of the house.

“I can make you a frame if you want, Mama,” Sandy said.

“My goodness, Sandy. My cup runneth over. Thank you. Don’t neglect your chores though, or your Dad will have my head. I will put the photo with your nice frame right here on my table that Uncle made. I’m so lucky.”

The three little girls were curled up on her bed. They stared at the photo, not really understanding what was happening. Helen thought she was in trouble somehow. She didn’t know why, but the picture was not quite right. She had seen pictures of herself at school, this was not the same.


“It’s just fine, Hugh. This is my family and I’m proud to have the photo. Thank you for doing this for me.” With that she had a coughing fit, and the girls were scrambled off her bed and out the door. When she settled back on her pillows again, and she was alone, she took a real and true look at the photograph. She brought the photo to her chest and the tears came then.

Uncle crept up to the door of the little house to look in on Melvina, as he liked to do, then just as quietly backed out. He waved Hugh off when he saw him coming back into to check on her again.

“Leave her be, Hugh. She’ll not want to disappoint you.”

Hugh took a few paces back from the door and waited.


Victoria Kemsley teaches writing to seniors at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. She follows the ‘Learn then Teach’ philosophy. But sometimes it’s ‘Teach then Learn’. This piece is part of an anthology called Prairie Stories, that traces the life of her Grandfather and Grandmother who homesteaded in Delia, Alberta after the first world war. Email: victoriakemsley[at]