External Photo Clues:
Printed on “KODAK VELOX PAPER”
Photo taken by Imogene Steiner, age 9
When I was 6, my father was killed in an industrial accident. My mother, Eileen Steiner, received a settlement from his employer plus a life insurance policy payout. Although we had plenty of money to live on our own, she decided to move us in with her two older sisters, Josephine and Maureen Mueller. She was too sad to stay in the house we’d shared with my father, and too scared to raise a child by herself. Aunt Jo and Aunt Reeney were happy to have us, and we settled into the big old house they rented together. The sisters had grown up on a farm, but their parents had died long ago and they sold the farm for a tidy profit, so although we weren’t rich, we were always comfortable.
The house we lived in was a lovely old Victorian place, but the landlord was terrible at keeping up with repairs, so there were a lot of issues. But we all loved the house so we put up with it. That changed the evening the landlord cornered Aunt Reeney in the alley behind the house and made a pass at her. She refused his advances, so he gave her a black eye and a split lip. Aunt Jo got a strange look in her eye and said she would take care of it. About a week later, the IRS began an audit of the landlord’s finances and found he had been grossly under reporting his income for years. He owed over $50,000 in back taxes, and spent the next 6 years in prison. The sisters bought the Victorian house at a sheriff’s auction for a fraction of its value. They made lots of repairs and improvements, including some of Aunt Jo’s favorites – a phone in almost every room and one of the first color televisions in town. Aunt Jo loved her gadgets.
My mother had always been rather sickly, and sadly she died of a bout of pneumonia when I was 11. Before she died, she told me to always stick with Aunt Jo, because she knew how to take care of things. Aunt Jo wasn’t the kind of aunt to bake you cookies or read you fairy tales. But she always told me that I could get anything I wanted if I set my mind to it. Aunt Jo never had much use for men – she had her books and her gadgets, and she was happy to be a homebody and take care of me. Aunt Reeney was the social butterfly of the group. She belonged to both the Women’s Guild and the Garden Club, and she often went to the mixers sponsored by the Elks club. She also would often have a few more drinks than she could handle, and would be driven home late in the evening by one of the Elks club members. Aunt Reeney had been engaged for years to a traveling salesman named Paul Peterson. Mr. Peterson used to visit us every week or so to see her. After a while, he would come once a month, and less often as time went by. One day, when we hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, there was a notice in the newspaper that he had been killed in a seven-car pileup in Loganville, about an hour away. Of course, no one could help but notice that the article said he was survived by his wife and twin daughters, age 5.
Aunt Jo sometimes picked me up at school at lunchtime and we would eat together at the Tea Room. Soon after Paul Peterson’s funeral, we overheard Alderman Stern’s wife, Marguerite Stern, gossiping with some of her fellow member’s of the Women’s Guild at the Tea Room. She said she didn’t think Aunt Reeney had ever been engaged to Mr. Peterson, because, after all, why would a handsome man like him want to marry a drunken floozy like Maureen Mueller. Aunt Jo and I snuck out of the Tea Room and she took me home. I cried all the way home at the awful things Mrs. Stern had said. Aunt Jo got that look in her eye, and said she would take care of it. Not long after that, an old issue of a girlie magazine turned up in the bathroom at the Elks club. It featured a risqué pictorial of a young model named Rita Spangler, who bore a striking resemblance to Marguerite Stern, right down to the egg-shaped birthmark on the left side of her neck. A few weeks later, Alderman and Mrs. Stern moved to Chicago, saying they could no longer abide living in such a small town and they needed the culture and the civility of the big city.
Years later, after Aunt Reeney had succumbed to cancer and I had left for college, Aunt Jo decided to sell the house and move into a retirement home. The first time I visited her, she was in a small dark room with one small window, with a view of the back wall of the hospital next door. Although she liked the place, she wasn’t happy with her room and she told me it made her feel old and sad. I looked her in the eye and told her not to worry, I would take care of it. The next time I saw her, she had been moved to a bright corner room with two windows and a lovely view of the park next door. The room had been occupied by a wealthy woman whose family suddenly moved her out when they became suspicious that the staff had been stealing her expensive jewelry. When the room became available, Aunt Jo was able to move in right away. I will always credit my Aunt Jo for all my success. She taught me that I could get anything I wanted, if I set my mind to it.
Dr. Imogene Steiner, 1982
About The Author:
Nicki Winter – “I’m a 41-year-old woman living in Eden Prairie, MN with my husband and my dog. I have no kids, but I am a doting aunt on 3 nieces and 1 nephew. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and I’ve worked as an accountant for about 17 years. I love all the old photos I have of my family, and it makes me sad that these photos are of someone’s family, but they’ve been lost and may never find their way back to their true family again. Giving them a back-story, even an imaginary one, gives them another life out in the ether of the world wide web.”
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.