I never met the man. And there are so few pictures of him that I start to wonder if he really did exist. My understanding is that he was such a quiet, unassuming personality, when he was in groups, that he did kind of disappear into the background.
Here it is, the weekend of July 4th (and, suddenly, national holidays have expanded from one day to three) and I am walking through the old, original part of town as I have done so many times previously. But because the 4th is nigh, there is frantic scouring of sidewalks, especially the ones lining the perimeter of Independence Hall, the ones embedded with commemorative bronze plaques of signers of the Declaration. The area is already teaming with tourists, amassing on one side of the street for the original State House tours, on the other for the Liberty Bell viewing. These are normally popular attractions, but this weekend of all weekends is like a gold rush for patriotism and American history. Besides having to dodge the high-powered water jets that are busily removing hardened gum and spit from the hard-surfaced streetscape, I am dodging the crowds and the array of cameras and photo ops. I am skipping over the water spray and I am ducking under the digital flashes in a strange dance upon America’s collective memory.
And like a flash, I recall the photo I have inherited; the one of him, my paternal grandfather, along with my grandmother, standing in front of the Betsy Ross House. Now, that might not seem like a disconnect to you, but they never lived here – and I do. I had seen the picture in my youth, since it was one of perhaps three of him ever taken. I never knew, growing up, what the couple were doing or where they were, but in among some of their belongings which have fallen to me, there were a pair of Liberty Bell bookends and this photograph, probably taken in the late 1930s. I am guessing at the date, but based on the fact that the Ross House’s facade was restored in 1937 (and the picture shows the new look) and that its adjacent empty lot seems to lack a garden (“Atwater Kent then purchased the two adjacent properties to the west of the Betsy Ross House to develop a “civic garden.” The entire property, including the historic house and courtyard, were given to the city of Philadelphia in 1941.” – from the house’s website).
Here I am, seventy-plus years after they posed for this picture, living here in this city they visited, and, today, walking in their ghostly footsteps, just as visitors like them did and still do, walking among history’s ghosts, here in this layered place. And if I hadn’t moved here, I might not have known the meaning of this image. I have made a connection to my past by moving six hundred miles away from it, and based upon a 2.5” x 4” captured moment in time.
I don’t know how many tourists take their pictures at the Betsy Ross House – far more seem focused on the Hall or the Bell for their keepsake shots. There is something more intimate and sweet about the bandbox-style home’s human scale, although my grandparents appear tiny, since the entire house structure was included in the shot, taken from across the street (by my father? I wonder).
But the other thing that interests me is that they are not, etched now in my mind, celebrating the usual founding fathers, but rather the one female who gets any cred in the whole story (remember, it is his-story). And I am reminded of my love for this grandmother because she, most of all, was a great example of women’s strength. She was an early Suffragette and she never missed a vote her entire life. She rejected her family’s religion and restrictive norms, eloped with the quiet man in the picture and took him to the Betsy Ross House. It is a very American story. A part of my story. Placeness of spirit, love, celebration. Happy Birthday, America!