Striking Gold – In My Belmont Basement
By Scott Stratford – Belmont, July 2020
The photo is askew. It is faded, the people becoming ghostlike as if slowly leaving our reality. To the observer, it is a carelessly framed and poorly exposed snapshot of an altogether ordinary family. The overall sense is of an artifact of little significance, on its way to becoming invisible.
It was worth more to me, when I found it, than any precious metal on the planet. It is the find of a lifetime. And I owe it to BOLLI.
The scene is Sheridan, Wyoming, circa 1923. My mother Mary, the younger Maxon daughter, is far less pleased than sister Jane to be posing with her parents and grandmother, even as a visiting uncle and aunt bookend the ensemble.
I grew up imbued with Stratford family lore, the saga of Montana homesteaders whose wheat farm I helped work during its century in our possession. My father and his six siblings led intertwined, often fractious lives where love and grudges always co-existed. They shared an awe, and a disdain, for “Pop”, my charismatic, poetic, domineering grandfather, who staked his claim south of Billings in 1910.
My Maxon heritage—my mother’s side—went uncelebrated and largely unshared. In my youth, the extent of the lineage was my grandmother Elsie, across town, and my Aunt Jane, the Detroit school principal whose annual visits en route to mountain fly-fishing thrilled us all.
I never met my grandfather, a loving man who died of a second heart attack in 1939 while a conductor for the Northern Pacific. Mom was reticent to inflict (as she saw it) family reminiscences on her three feckless sons. And, like too many Boomers, I didn’t develop an interest in my family history until there was no one left to learn from.
Fast forward to last semester at BOLLI. Sue Wurster’s Creative Nonfiction Writing class got me delving into old Stratford stories, which re-awakened my regrets at my near-total lack of Maxon history. Those regrets were compounded by the fact that, for fifteen years, box after box of Stratford and Maxon family memorabilia had sat untouched in my basement office, just a few feet away from the desk where my BOLLI assignments were written.
Add this re-emerging guilt to the yawningly empty hours of pandemic lock-down, stir in the moments when I opened each box with combined emotions of dread and curiosity, and what emerged was a project—one I warmed to, bit by bit, even as the scope felt overwhelming.
The scrapbooks, letters, and thousands of photographs span 140 years. A few photos were instantly recognizable; in some other cases (too rarely) a penciled note denoted the person and perhaps even the year. And, sadly, many of those keepsakes of nearly a century and a half will never be identified and appreciated as they deserve to be.
But it was that photo that abruptly turned my project into something far more meaningful. Shock, euphoria, elation; however a “Eureka moment” is supposed to feel, I’ll never experience a deeper one.
Here, for the first time in my life, I had a scene of my mother’s intact family. Grandfather Harry stands smilingly off to one side, letting the women (his daughters, his wife Elsie, and my great-grandmother Jennie) have center stage. I subsequently learned that Harry had two sisters and three brothers, one of whom was evidently visiting with his own spouse at the time.
At the moment I can’t truly express just how much this picture means to me. (Even if I eventually do, Sue will advise me to watch out for cluttered writing!) I will forever be grateful, to her and to BOLLI, for enabling me to overcome years of inertia and discover such a connective tissue to generations I thought were forever lost to me.
Through the miracles of Photoshop, the photo is now straightened, cropped, and preserved very closely to its original quality. But the true miracle was finding it in the first place.
Before taking on the more satisfying career of at-home parent in the ’90s, Scott was Senior Editor for Economics in McGraw-Hill’s College Division. He served on Belmont’s School Committee and has been a Town Meeting member since 1995. In a more normal summer, he and his wife Holly would be hiking and kayaking near their condo in Bozeman, Montana. They joined BOLLI in 2018.