Makes me wonder, now, what else Christine wants from you? Is it enough to have known her image, to have relived her journey? Is there an even larger message about the world or the work or the love of each other? What else would she like to say through you? —Beth Waterhouse, friend and writer (December 2011)
Just when I think I’ve seen all there is that remains of my Grandmother Christine’s adventurous experiences, she comes to me with another touch. My good friend, Beth Waterhouse, understands this principle and she wrote me of it after I published Reliving the Dream 3. That essay tells of my finding a vintage photograph in Florence, Italy, that contains an image remarkably like that of Christine when she traveled there one-hundred years ago. I recount in the essay how my own sojourn to northern Italy in October 2011 (to retrace Christine’s footsteps) came to pass. It tells of the miraculous discovery of Christine’s journal that she kept during her 1911 adventures, of a photo showing her at that time—and a set of vintage postcards that came back with her from the trip. Together these heirlooms provide inspiration and context for my own experiences and writings.
It was three days before Christmas and I was reading alone in the living room while Mary Ann wrapped packages in our basement. It was late in the evening—maybe ten o’clock or so—as I heard her ascending the stairs. She called to me, “Steve, look what I just found in the basement?”
Jumping to the conclusion that whatever Mary Ann had found would require my repair the following day, I wasn’t initially thrilled by her announcement. But as she walked into the room, I saw that she carried a long, narrow object. She walked over to where I was seated and showed me a very old collage containing six vintage postcard watercolor pictures I recognized as depicting scenes from Venice, Italy. The glass inside the narrow black frame of the collage had been cracked across but was still held in place. I immediately understood the significance of Mary Ann’s find and I was overjoyed. Christine had showed up again.
One of the postcards brought back from Europe by Christine, and that I had initially discovered a few years ago, depicted a watercolor painting of a public garden in Venice. As I compared this postcard with the ones in the collage, I could tell that they were by the same artist, Manuel Wielandt.
Wielandt was born in Germany in 1863 and educated in the arts, although he never aspired to be known as a postcard artist. After completing his studies, he traveled around Southern Europe creating watercolor paintings of cities and sites of significance. Most of his work emphasized places along the French and Italian Riviera, but he also created a series focused on Venice and its surroundings. Publishers in Germany in the early 1900s took his pictures and created what have became known as “Wielandt Postcards.” There were a total of 100 different Wielandt postcards issued.
One question I have pondered since discovering the collage is how it happened to be in our basement when Mary Ann found it? I have no recollection of seeing the collage before, but Mary Ann thinks we perhaps brought it back from Indiana sometime during the 1980s along with other things that had once belonged to my grandmother. If so, I’m sure I didn’t understand then its significance in relation to her 1911 European trip. Even if I had made that connection, it wasn’t until Christine’s journal was discovered by my uncle in 2004 that the significance of the places she visited became known to me. Once her journal was found, it was possible for me to more fully appreciate the collage and its meaning to her. Without the journal, it was just another nice family artifact separated from its story.
I know that Christine bought at least seven Wielandt watercolor postcards during her time in Venice and brought them back home with her. Knowing of her emerging fondness for the visual arts at that time, I presume she was attracted to the painting skills of the artist, as well as to the specific scenes depicted. Whether she bought the complete set of 25 postcards in Wielandt’s series of Venice isn’t known. If she did, only seven have survived. I’m inclined to believe she only purchased selected cards from that series, and knowing now that she owned seven, I’m intrigued by the fact that she only chose to frame six of them. Why six, and why those six?
Dressed, packed, breakfast and off waving goodbye to the boys [Tony and Joe] above—hoping to meet them on the Rhine, perhaps never again. Haven’t seen “my friend” since Rome, nor Mr. Ryan and Phil and Roc since the morning we landed—fast leaving everybody behind. —Christine’s journal entry (July 22, 1911)
Within the full arc of Christine’s travel experiences in Europe, as gauged through her journal, it’s clear to me that Italy was a high point—and Venice was the best of Italy for her. It was the first country she visited and everything was still fresh and new. Her homesickness, which came later as she neared the conclusion of her travels, had not yet appeared. She formed several friendships with other passengers on the steamer as she sailed from New York to Italy, and it’s clear that some of those friendships continued into her time in Rome and Venice. In the July 22nd journal entry that she wrote soon after leaving Venice, Christine displayed a tinge of melancholy as she recounted having said goodbye to her friends and was “…fast leaving everybody behind.” Although she held some hope of reconnecting with two of them later in Germany, it’s evident that she was resigned to the prospect that it might not happen and she would never see her friends again. Her sadness continued for the next several days until she began to experience the Alps and found new exhilaration in her European travels.
Of particular interest to me in Christine’s July 22nd journal entry is her mention of a person whom she simply identified as “my friend.” This individual appears to have been someone she met on the steamer, but whom she had not seen since leaving Rome to continue her travels in northern Italy. The other friends noted in her entry were men, so I assume her mystery person was also male. To my knowledge, Christine doesn’t mention him in her journal again. Perhaps she had developed a special fondness for this person during the ocean voyage and their time in Rome, and this was her discreet way of recording her longing for him. Whether or not that is true, I’m certain that the male friendships she shared and left behind in Italy were deep and meaningful to her. Thus, I would not be surprised if this collage of Venetian watercolors represented more than just a souvenir of Italy to her. Is it just coincidence that she mentions six friends (including the mystery person) in her journal entry and that there are six pictures in the collage? With such questions in mind, I looked forward with anticipation to having an opportunity to look at the backs of the postcards.
Two weeks after Mary Ann found the collage, I had time to replace its broken glass. I pulled out the rusted nails that held the cardboard back in place, and as I removed the backing I noted that outlines of the postcards were etched upon it. I interpreted that as indicating that I probably was the first person to remove the backing since the collage was originally framed one-hundred years ago. I set the cardboard aside and began to inspect the matting—and the postcards. Nothing. There was only a single pencil scratch on one of the cards, which probably was the original price of the set; otherwise the postcards were unmarked. If they were intended to represent her special friends from her time in Italy, their identities and significance remain known only to her.
One final aspect of the journey of this collage from its creation to my basement fuels my conviction that it was very special to Christine. After she married my grandfather, John Rapp, in 1913, they moved into his family’s home in Rockford, Indiana. I don’t know how her collage was displayed in that home, but I expect it was since it helped remind her of those 1911 adventures–and perhaps friends–she knew in Europe. On January 1, 1919, the house in which she and John were living burned to the ground. Some of their household goods were able to be removed ahead of the fire, but most of their possessions were lost. Her collage, however, survived. I can imagine her hastily removing it from the wall where it hung and carrying it out with other valuables as she fled the burning house. What was she thinking in that moment?
And what is she saying to me now through this rediscovered gift? It’s too soon, I guess, to answer that question fully, but the collage and its significance sheds even more light upon this person and who she was before I called her my grandmother. I’ve chosen to hang the collage in my room above an antique dresser on which is placed a photo of her from about the time she created the collage. It and its colorful pictures remind me of a depth and meaning in her life—and mine—that I’ve only begun to know and understand. Our journey has just begun, and who knows what comes next…
It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that matters most. —John Wooden, legendary college basketball coach
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.