Column: Revisiting my grandparents, reinventing myself

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 7/25/2020 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 7/25/2020 10:10:13 PM

There they stood, nearly 100 years ago, on the steps in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. My mother, on the left, must have given her camera to someone to memorialize the visit. It’s a story I never heard as a child growing up in Iowa. It’s a scene that surprises me — not because my mother was there, but because Tillie and Ernest, her parents, were.

Even now I feel the intense Midwestern heat of that July day in 1927. The figures of my family are light against the massive stone entryway of the museum; the three of them are dressed for a visit to the city. My mother’s script as she labeled the picture is elegant.

A magnifying glass was no help as I tried to guess at the exhibits advertised behind them. I think it’s likely, though, that what they saw was “Models for a Monument to the Pioneer Woman,” shown at the Art Institute just then by a Chicago architectural organization. It was from these models that the Pioneer Woman monument, a bronze sculpture installed in Ponca City, Okla., in 1930, was selected. The monument shows a strong woman wearing a sunbonnet as she holds the hand of her child who skips beside her. The pioneer woman image — and all of the models in the show, would have captured aspects of my family’s own story. My mother and her parents would have enjoyed it.

The photograph presented itself to me by accident. Moving fragile family albums in the process of summer cleaning, I found several pages falling to the floor. As I reached to pick them up, one photo, this one, made me stop to look. Its energy drew me in as I held it carefully and took it to a comfortable chair on my shaded patio for deeper study.

That year my mother, Myrna, was about to turn 19. Her history was familiar to me. She had graduated at 16 from the small-town Iowa high school that is also my alma mater, and she had gone on to a two-year secretarial course at Capital City Commercial College in Des Moines. Maybe, I speculated, this trip to Chicago celebrated the completion of her classes in Des Moines and marked her departure for her first job, in Washington, D.C.

It makes sense to me that my mother would have wanted to go to Chicago that summer, and it was logical too that she would have been eager to visit the Art Institute. She was that kind of gal: ambitious, eager to venture beyond her little town and be part of a larger world. For Iowans like my mother, Chicago was a destination.

At home, she was recognized as an accomplished musician. She had studied classical piano since she was young, and even performed during her high school years as the accompanist for silent films at the town’s new movie theater. I was proud of her diverse musical connections, including her role as a church organist. She was an avid reader and subscribed to her era’s version of online learning: book-length art seminars from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. When we traveled as a family, we went to art museums wherever we visited, Chicago’s Art Institute among them.

But her parents, Tillie and Ernest, were, from my childish point of view of knowing them for a mere 12 years, nothing like that. I always imagined they had never left Iowa. Both had grown up on neighboring farms outside that same small town and had, I’m quite sure, finished only the classes offered at their local country schools. Ernest moved on from being a successful farmer to many years of work at the local lumber yard, marrying Tillie along the way and establishing them in a house in town that still stands today.

For me, they were just my elderly grandparents. Adept at keeping up the house and gardens, producing and preparing good food, but reading, as far as I ever saw, nothing more erudite than the Sioux City Journal, delivered to their porch each evening. In my mind, they were never people who went, either by train or by car, to the Chicago Institute of Art.

Still, the photo lets me know more: They were there with their daughter on that July day in 1927. Tillie had the right hat, a fashionable dress and the correct pearls; Ernest wore a suit and is holding his straw hat in his right hand, next to Tillie. Probably he drove his car from western Iowa to Illinois. I also know that they set out from a beautiful prairie style house where my mother had grown up and where I, too, eventually lived, as a teenager.

In the few years I knew these grandparents, it appears that I greatly underestimated their interests, their sophistication, their depth. My loss, till now. This magical photograph allows me to reinvent them, to see them as the grandparents I would have wished for, given the evidence I have.

As children, we have a limited capacity to know our ancestors. What we remember is sketchy and our eyes back then wore the blinders of immaturity. A chance discovery of a photo like this can urge any of us — all of us — to enlarge our views of the lineages we thought we came from. Musing on things left behind by these ancients offers possibilities to enhance identity, inspire creativity and bring the comfort of belonging. With such musings, we can also reinvent ourselves.

Mary K. Otto lives in Norwich.

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