My grandparents - Barbara Ann Crosby and David Cornell - recently passed away. My grandma was a letter writer. She would send little notes, letters, and postcards. Oh, the postcards. She collected them - saved all the postcards she received in the mail and ones she bought wherever she went. And then she filed them by state in archival boxes. Some are in plastic sleeves. Others, not. There are so many - boxes and boxes.
My uncle ended up with most of the paper items from my grandparents. Their archives. I asked him for the box of postcards from the states close-by and I have been intending to do something with them.
I'm not sure what, but up to now, I haven't even looked at them.
Today, I opened up the box and thumbed through them. I have one box, organized by states, including: Michigan, Indiana, Ohio. Further organized by city, in alphabetical order, with the special and general state cards in the front. I flipped first to Ohio. I found a card of Norwalk, Ohio. Marc's hometown. Where Grandma and Grandpa moved after Grandpa retired. They lived in Starkville, Mississippi and my grandpa taught at Mississippi State University. My dad grew up there. My parents did their graduate/medical studies there and my sister was born there. The south, though I never lived there, is a strong identity marker for me. I always thought my grandma epitomized Southern hospitality, and my grandpa often told me that when I was born, he thought he would have a chance to see what my grandma was like when she was a girl. Grandma grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. When I was in middle school, my grandparents moved to the next town over. I loved it. My siblings and I grew up spending weeks in the summer with them at the cottage in Ashtabula, Ohio and now they were around all the time. They came to every concert, every recital, every play, every party.
For the past few years, I have only been able to visit my grandparents every few months. We live 5 hours away from Norwalk, where they were living in a nursing home. It was heartbreaking. My grandpa didn't recognize anyone who visited, although he was always happy to see us, and often didn't remember my grandma. I never knew if my grandma would be well enough to visit, or would cry at the very sight of me. I missed the days when I would come home from college and stop at her house, sit on the blue and white furniture and talk about what was going on while my grandma knitted dishcloths. Play cards. Eat snacks. Make dinner. Help around the house. Their house was down the street from our church, and also from a close friend from youth group. We would walk to the grocery store around the corner or McDonald's for a snack. Every time I walked into her room in the nursing home, #52 and then #55, I would remember that cornflower blue and then think of the empty house that sat on Manchester Drive with boxes filling up the living room where the oriental rug, knitting basket and side tables used to be. I can still see the ceramic dish I made them filled with candies, usually Lifesaver Wintergreen mints or Hershey's Chocolate mini bars.
Postcard of Norwalk, Ohio from Grandma's collection Postcard published by dynacolor graphics, inc. out of Miami, Florida. Photograph by Allen's Photography (Ashland, Ohio). "Trees line the busy streets of Uptown Norwalk, Ohio, where shoppers visit an array of unique shops. Norwalk is the Huron County seat and boasts a variety of businesses, industries and historical sites. This northern Ohio community is located just south of the Lake Erie vacationland midway between Cleveland and Toledo.
-sThe postcard of Norwalk makes me laugh. It's a picture of Main Street, but the focus of the image are the cars waiting at the stop light. Not the historic storefronts, not the tree lined sidewalks, not the County Courthouse. Marc pointed out that it was taken prior to the Main Street renovation. How does this picture even come close to bringing up the feeling that I have walking from Sherri's Coffee House to the library or post office and then to meet my parents or a friend for lunch? How does it evoke my memories growing up? How does it represent the familiarity or the frequency of running into friends wherever you go, even after 10 years? There is no message written on the back; it is one of the many cards my grandma purchased. She probably wrote thousands of cards, and bought even more. I don't have family in Norwalk anymore, not my family anyway. My parents sold their house in Milan. My grandparents have passed away.
When my grandma Proctor was sick in 2009 and passed away, I spent months painting postcard-sized watercolors. Some I sent to her. She had one framed in her house, which my grandpa kept until he moved. Now my mom has it. I gave a matching one to my grandma Cornell. I think my parents have that one too. That process was invaluable. Not only did it give me an opportunity to work through my grief, it gave me something to hold on to. I've used that collection of paintings for so many things. They were displayed at my senior art show in college. They were part of a performance piece I did in graduate school. I keep them in my office, and get them out from time to time. They are connected to my marriage -- a postcard that Marc sent me from Israel during this time served as the template for the project. It was therapeutic. It was honest. A professor of psychology that I had for class at one time went to the show and told me that oftentimes artwork can be self serving, but something about December 23 transcended my personal feelings to help others deal with the same thing. It was about the day my grandmother passed away, but it was also about the process of working through and coming to terms with her passing.
I have not taken that opportunity with my grandparents Cornell. Maybe it's time to deal with the grief of losing my grandparents, and my hometown.
Cincinnati, Ohio postcards from Grandma's collection. The earliest date back to 1909. Several were written in 1940-1942. The card printed in 1909 is a "Phostint" card made only by Detroit Publishing Co. and has a postmark and one cent postage. There is a series of cards featuring landmark images (primarily landscapes along the Ohio River) by Young and Carl (phot.) and printed by Ohio Post Card Co. out of Cincinnati. The 1942 cards were published by Kraemer Art Company, Cincinnati, Ohio and feature buildings and fountains.
I propose this:
-I will sift through this box of cards and document them, find out what I can about the local history depicted, printing history of the card, the family history of the correspondence, and establish a personal history with the locale.
-I will respond through small scale paintings and drawings to each set of cards, established by city, state. To do this, I plan to visit as many of the places as I can, document the place as it is now, and write about my visit in postcard form (100 words or less).
-I will ask friends and family to create their own postcards of their hometowns or current places of residence, depicting the same places found on the cards or create new ones.
These are broad parameters, and as I start researching and working, I am sure a more clear framework will emerge.
Ruth M. Smith
Community arts educator and researcher. Drinking coffee. Home educating. Making art. Listening intentionally.