May 2, 2021

THE GRIM GRANDPARENTS

This is the lone remaining photograph of Harriett’s paternal grandparents, John Neil Cate and his wife Harriet Erickson Cate.  There were many family photos of her maternal grandparents, the Ensmingers.  And “Grandma Ensminger” was beloved by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as a jolly and loving woman.

The Cates—not so much.  Harriett’s father George must have loved his mother—enough to name his second daughter after her.  For some reason, he spelled his daughter’s name differently—the “two t’s” version of Harriet.  Maybe he subconsciously hoped she would be a happier person than his mother.

George was one of seven children—two daughters and five sons. His father was a farmer in McMinn County and died at 71 in 1899.  His widow Harriet lived on until 1915.  Harriett would have been 17 when her Grandma Cate died, so she had an opportunity to know her.  She didn’t want to hurt her father’s feelings about it, but she regretted being named for such a “sour personality,” she told me.  There was a large photograph of the Cate grandparents that Harriett’s father had. Perhaps a larger version of this photo.  After her parents died, Harriett seemed the logical person to take the portrait—as the namesake of Harriet Erickson Cate.

She found their faces so unattractive—grim and unsmiling—she could never bear to display the portrait. Instead, she wrapped it in a quilt and tucked it in the back of her closet. For over thirty years. 

I’m sure this farmer and his wife were hard-working, church going and neighborly people.  Although very poor, I think they were honest and cared for their big family as well as they could. Why do they look so joyless? If you cover Harriet’s unhappy face, you notice her trim figure and graceful hand. But her facial expression gives no hint of contentment or pleasure.

I wonder if they had framed portraits made for all seven or their children. And if so, what happened to the others? After Tom and I married, we were in Athens one summer and buying some antiques at local shops. Harriett decided to redeem the unlovely portrait’s handsome wide oak frame  She got rid of the portrait and refurbished the frame for a mirror, which she gave us.

When I walk by this mirror, I often smile into it—reminding myself that without a smile, I may look as joyless as this dear great-grandmother’s portrait! 

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