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Family's Photo History Preserves Story of an Unselfish Heart

April 04, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN

True stories, especially to children, are always the best. And I'm not talking about "docudramas" or that other murky genre, something called "based on."

The "based ons" are usually tidy stories with no loose ends, gift-wrapped and dumbed-down versions of life. When's the last time that you heard the word ambiguous used to hype a docudrama on TV?

Yet real-life truth can be simple too, even as it reveals many sides. Children appreciate this, if we give them a chance. Grown-ups would do well to listen in.

I mention all this by way of introducing Donna Erickson Couch, a wife and mother of three daughters, who calls her true story "The Photograph." She published it herself, with illustrations. It's not really Donna's story, but that of her grandmother, Marie, and her grandmother's older sister, Anna.

And yes, Virginia, it really happened. Here's how.

Donna, who also is director of religious education at St. Edward's Catholic parish in Dana Point, went in search of her roots to a small town in Minnesota called Faribault, about 50 miles south of Minneapolis.

Faribault, with a population of 18,000 or so, is the kind of woodsy rural place where everybody knows everybody else's business, or if they don't actually know that business themselves, then they know someone who does.

Donna's family, French-Canadians, settled in Faribault in the early 1800s and most of them never left.

(So what I'm saying here is that if you don't believe this story, you are welcome to visit Faribault and corroborate it yourself. Take a coat.)

Anyway, about 15 years ago, Donna and her family were visiting her parents. Donna took out her tape recorder and started recording her mother and two of her aunts going on and on about the family.

People call this making an "oral history," but it's also a wonderful excuse for just talking, or gossiping, or searching your soul.

So as the women were orally historifying (or whatever), they were looking at family photographs. One, in particular, caught Donna's eye.

There was her grandmother, Marie C. Thibault, at the age of 7, posing alone for a formal portrait wearing a fancy taffeta dress. Seeing as how having a formal portrait taken was a very big deal back in 1891, usually reserved for the entire family, Donna wanted to know what gives.

Plus, Donna had always had a special bond with her grandmother, who died when Donna was 8 years old. Both were storytellers, both were deeply involved in the church.

Well. Did they have a story to tell Donna. And that's what "The Photograph" does.

It tells a simple story about two sisters, Anna and Marie.

Anna, who at 15 was eight years older than Marie, worked as a seamstress for Faribault's wealthy ladies, earning $2 a week. Every day on her way home from work, she'd pass Mr. Lieb's shoe store and eye a pair of kid leather shoes, laced up the front.

Even though the shoes cost an entire week's salary, one day Anna bought them, feeling like a wealthy lady herself. (She wore a Size 5). Marie loved her older sister's new shoes and hinted that she wouldn't mind having some like them for her birthday.

But Anna already had a present for her sister, the fancy taffeta dress that she had designed herself. Marie was thrilled with the beautiful dress, so thrilled, in fact, that for another present, Anna saved her money so that the portrait could be taken.

There was, however, the matter of Marie's shoes. She had only one pair, and they were old and scruffy. Their father, no wealthy man he, couldn't afford to buy another pair and Anna didn't have any more money herself.

Marie didn't complain, but Anna hatched a plan. She asked Mr. Lieb if she could borrow new shoes for Marie to wear during the portrait sitting.

The shoes were gorgeous and Marie was elated at the surprise. "You are the best sister in the entire whole wide world and universe!" she declared.

Except Anna had neglected to tell Marie up front that she couldn't keep the shoes. And let's just say that this truth was a blow.

"Marie, please try not to cry," pleaded Anna.

"It's all right, Anna," said Marie bravely. "I do understand. I will have the picture of the shoes and that is the next best thing to really having them."

Oh, sure, Marie got over it, but somehow Anna never quite did. When the photograph was ready a week later, everyone gushed, except Anna could only faintly smile. She kept thinking about returning the shoes to Mr. Lieb (who took them, of course).

But through the years, Anna and Marie remained the best of friends, and Anna could never smell the fragrance of new leather shoes or hear the rustle of tissue paper inside a box without thinking of Marie calling her "the best sister in the whole wide world and universe."

True, it took Donna 15 years to get this 102-year-old story in print, but I'd say it was worth it. Real family values don't change. They just get more precious with time.

Oh, and here's a postscript: Mrs. Duffy, who is 100 years old and lives in a Faribault nursing home and knew the characters in the story personally, had this to say upon reading the book.

"Now, that Mr. Lieb. He could have given her those shoes. He had lots of money!"

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