I never met my great uncle, Harry Clifford, but his photos are the gift that keeps on giving. I have several old leather bound albums filled with his photos of his favorite subject – his wife, my Great Aunt Jessie.
Luckily for my family, Harry also took countless photos of Jessie’s family, including her parents, her siblings and her cousins. Thanks to him, I’ve seen my grandmother, Flo (Jessie’s sister) as a young girl in the early 1900s before she was married. I’ve seen Jessie being silly with her cousins Maybelle and Clara Shumm. Where I knew Jessie and my grandmother only as “older women”, through Harry’s camera lens I’ve been able to see them as they were in their youth, with tiny waists, long full skirts, often in crazy hats, and full of life.
When I was a little girl and would spend weekends with my grandmother, she always told stories of The Five Keefe Girls – she and her sisters, Jessie, Madge, Ruth and Alma. (She had a brother, Bill, but apparently he was not part of the “sister act.”) Their adventures were amazing to me. It was as if I had a Little Women cast of characters of my very own. Flo and her sisters climbed trees, hid in corn shocks, waded in creeks, rode roller coasters, paddled canoes, picnicked in cemeteries, and put on shows, complete with costumes. When I look at Harry’s photos, I can see these women doing it!
As an adult, I know that Harry’s photos only represent “the good times,” and that my Little Women didn’t always have an easy life. But isn’t it the good times that we want to remember? Here are a few of Harry’s fun photographs of our family. I love their faces, their clothes – and how he framed each shot.
There’s a wonderful song from the musical Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Although Harry died at 49 years old, well before any of The Five Keefe Girls, he’s the one who’s told their stories. And his photos keep them alive for me.
In her book, Dressed for the Photographer, Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900, author Joan Severa says she found these few lines beside an early-twentieth-century woman’s photograph.
Look upon this face, and know
that I was a person, here, in this time and place,
and I was happy.
These words ring true when I look at the faces of Jessie, Madge, Flo, Ruth and Alma – The Five Keefe Girls – in these photos. Thank you, Uncle Harry, for this treasure beyond measure.