Three portraits were on sale in an antiques store in Waterville, Maine, the summer of 2001. On the reverse of each cardboard frame was a signature – Bessie Chapman, Cora Benedix, Lucy Bailey – followed by a proud legend: “Class of 1919.” Someone had kept all three senior portraits for many years until unknown circumstances led to their standing, all three still together, in a chest of drawers in a store in Maine into which Marc and I would walk that sunny day.
The purchase was the first of its kind for me. Up to that point I had been pretty much immune to the charm and appeal of vintage photographs, and I frankly could not have explained that summer day exactly why I bought them. Within twenty-four hours, however, I was showing them to a family friend, and we began to weave stories about these three young women about whom we really knew next to nothing.
A few months later, reflecting on the three photographs in the aftermath of the events of September 11, I was surprised to find that I no longer viewed the portraits as a random acquisition. Bessie Chapman and Cora Benedix and Lucy Bailey, I was beginning to suspect, might have lessons to teach me about being ready for change at an hour I did not expect.
At the close of their sophomore year, in May 1917, the United States had declared war against Germany; members of the Class of 1919 had had to learn to say goodbye to older brothers and fathers and cousins and watch them walk down streets to train stations to prepare for the battlefields of Europe.
In October of their senior year, they had witnessed a flu epidemic that ravaged New England and then the rest of the country, eventually killing 675,000 Americans, primarily young men and women, often in a matter of only two or three days.
Ten years after Bessie and Cora and Lucy graduated from high school, the Stock Market would crash and the Great Depression begin.
And ten years after that, in September 1939, they would read in the papers that Hitler had invaded Poland.
And yet their portraits remain, and the bond between Bessie and Cora and Lucy can get me ninety years later reflecting on my own life, all perhaps because of one person who asked for their portraits and saved them through the shifts and challenges of the last century and would not part with the pictures or discard them – until she had to.
Six weeks after September 11, I was journalling about the Gospel passage in which Jesus speaks about houses broken into and masters delayed in coming home. To me, his words communicated a compassionate awareness that people live one way when they do not expect that things can really change or end in their lives. They live another when they find out or are reminded that things can and do change. “At an hour you do not expect,” Jesus says, events in your life can demand of you every ounce of courage and honesty and intelligence and wisdom. Lives change, Jesus is saying. Be ready for the change.