My aunt Anne asked, “So, since you’re here, do you want to take Uncle Ollie’s portrait with you?”
Turning, I replied, “You’ve got uncle Ollie? Where?”
“He’s been hanging in my spare bedroom for the last 7 or 8 years. He’s creepy.”
“I wondered where he had been hanging out. Sure, I’ll take him home with me.”
A few moments later, Aunt Anne brought a large ornate, guilded frame, approximately 20″ x 24″ from 1909 with Uncle Ollie’s cherub face. Painted with soft clouds in the background and exquisite details, his blue eyes seem to follow you. It takes a moment for someone to ask, “wait, is he dead in that photo?”
Why yes, yes he is.
Uncle Ollie, my maternal grandfather’s older brother lived for 3 years, 3 months and 29 days from 1906 to 1909. He died of scarlet fever; his post-mortem infant portrait hung around much longer to become something of family lore. In the late 19th century and early 20th century (think Victorian Era), photos were expensive to produce as digital would not arrive in the scene for another century. Childhood and infant deaths were common during that time. People did not own cameras like we do today in the form of mobile phones. Often, families only gathered at deaths, thus the photos memorializing a child would be post-mortem.
Visiting my grandparents’ house as a child, I remember seeing the Uncle Ollie (his portrait) hanging in the living room. Granddaddy said that he liked having him nearby (even though granddaddy was born 5 years after Uncle Ollie died). When granddaddy died in 1980, Uncle Ollie’s portrait came home with my mother and hung in our basement until 2011 when he went to my Uncle Jeff. Now, the portrait’s with me.
That afternoon, I loaded Uncle Ollie face-up in the trunk of my car. My logic was that he lived long before the horse-less carriage, and interstate traffic would probably frighten him.
On my way home, I stopped and stood in the cemetery looking at my grandparents’ grave markers. Alone, behind the church, I asked, “Alright, where’s Uncle Ollie buried?” There came no response.
Birds chirped and cars passed on the highway. I spoke again to the ground, “Okay, now what am I supposed to do with Uncle Ollie?”
Yet again, no answers came from any of my deceased maternal relatives. I could imagine them saying something like, “We don’t have a use for his portrait anymore. He’s your problem now.”
I searched the markers for Uncle Ollie’s name. None found, I sighed and drove the 75 miles home, Uncle Ollie still in the trunk. Jim and I agreed not to bring Uncle Ollie in the house. For now, he’s on a shelf in the storage shed, Jim officially creeped-out.
Jim asked, “Where is he buried?”
I said, “Grandaddy was quiet when I asked.”
Jim asked, “Did you expect him to answer?”
I said, “Of course not. I was hoping for a sky-written note by an aerial pilot.”
I tried Google; there’s a site for just about anything. Thanks to findagrave.com, I found Uncle Ollie buried 3 miles from my grandparents and great-grandparents at Jersey Baptist church. Somewhere between 1909 and 1934, my family became Methodists, and everyone else is buried at Cotton Grove. I guess the reason for the switch will remain a mystery.
On a more recent trip back to Lexington my brother Kelly and I stopped at the Jersey Baptist Church cemetery.
It became a game of “Where’s Ollie” as we searched for Uncle Ollie’s grave. I asked Kelly if we should split up and search. He replied, “not unless it gets dark.” In his competitive spirit, he silently said to himself, “I don’t want her to find it. I want to find it first.”
We walked to a section that I thought was too new, and turned right. Kelly methodically searched each headstone and said that he heard a voice say, “turn around” and asked, “who’s talking to me?” As I started back through the section dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s, Kelly spotted the small worn marker that I missed, and he circled around a second time. Third row from the trees, near the edge of a cornfield, he found the headstone of Ollie Lee Hedrick, oldest son of my great-grandparents. There it was, much smaller than I imagined, near two other infant markers. We began to feel a great sense of loss and peace at the same time. An almost delighted energy filled the area, and we said to no one in particular, “He’s not been forgotten.”
Recently, we found a family photograph from Christmas before my first birthday. There, in the background behind me laughing and wriggling in my mother’s arms, hung Uncle Ollie’s portrait. He’s been with me my whole life, waiting for us to play a game of hide and seek in the graveyard.
*****Photo of Uncle Ollie’s portrait below******