Thursday, October 22, 2009

Last Rites

Jake Bonney, Minnie Bonney, others unknown

My grandfather was a colorful guy. For most of his life he was a railroad comptroller, work that took him from Norfolk all throughout the Mid-South working for the Southern and the Louisville & Nashville lines. He outlived three wives and had four children. He was a lay leader in a succession of Methodist churches, became an ordained minister after he retired and served a small island church along the Virginia-North Carolina border until he was in his eighties. He lived into his 90s, just short of the record set by his mother.

When my grandfather died, among the things my father brought home from his house were several boxes of pictures and Super 8 movies. My grandfather always had a camera with him to take pictures of whomever he was with. When reel-to-reel tape recorders became popular, he once put one under the dining room table at my uncle’s house and recorded an entire Thanksgiving meal. (No conversation, it turns out. Mostly a muddled series of grunts and requests to Aunt Doris for more mashed potatoes.) When movie cameras came out, my grandfather was the first person I knew to have one.

My father had no idea what to do with all the old pictures and movies. He was in his sixties, old enough to know all the family members, but he didn’t know any of the people in the pictures. We suspected that they were probably from decades of church luncheons, picnics, dedications, retreats and other occasions.

Dad couldn’t bring himself to throw the pictures and movies out. So when he died I brought the boxes of pictures and movies home to my house. The pictures were easy to go through. There were no clues as to when they were taken or at which churches they might have been taken.

One cool October day, not unlike today, I got around to setting up my grandfather’s old Super 8 projector in the garage and went through the movies. The movies were no better than the pictures had been in telling me where they’d been taken or when. I’d have happily packed them up and sent them to anyone who could use them if I’d known who they were. There was no take-up reel, so as each movie played for one last time the film ran out of the projector into a large trash can.

There was also no sound in those old movies. But I really didn’t need it. I’d spent enough time at church socials when I was a child to supply my own soundtrack in my head.

The people at the left in the photo above, which was probably taken by my grandfather, are my great-grandfather Jake and great-grandmother Minnie. I don't know who the other people are, perhaps members of Minnie's Ayers family. Jake is immediately recognizable because he has the distinctive perpendicular ears that ran through at least three generations of Bonney men until, thankfully, more powerful genes prevailed in my generation.


  1. Great photo! I love old photographs. I can't imagine people who get rid of family pictures. I go through them at flea markets to "save" some of them, and even if I don't know the people in them, I'll keep them and wonder about the people and what their lives might have been like. You evidently come by your love of photography honestly!

  2. ps
    This photo reminds me of a comment my son made about a photo I have of my grandmother. Everyone in the photo is just looking straight into the camera, but they're all pretty sombre looking in the photo. Eric's comment was "this photo was taken before smiling was invented."

  3. This your tale remember me of a box with hundreds family shots from my father. I've promised my mother to digitalize them. I've started the work but I haven't finished yet ... arghhhhh!