Article - Summer 2023

Projections of Life

Memories of a Midwestern childhood and the stories only pictures can tell

By David Owen | July 6, 2023
Gaga takes in the action at one of the racecourses that she and Dada visited in Florida. (Loyd Cylven Owen/courtesy of the author)
Gaga takes in the action at one of the racecourses that she and Dada visited in Florida. (Loyd Cylven Owen/courtesy of the author)

Thirty-five years ago, my father gave me a box that had sat in his attic for 20 years, and I put it in my own attic and mostly forgot about it. I knew what it contained: slides taken by my father’s father, who died in 1967. I even vaguely remembered the slides because my grandfather used to put on shows for my sister and me. But his ancient projector and his screen were long gone, and so was his battery-powered handheld viewer. I had no way of looking at the slides other than holding them up to a light, so I didn’t open the box.

Not long ago, I bought a scanner that can digitize images from transparencies, and when I finished doing what I’d bought it for, I remembered the slides. There were maybe 800 of them, some in rusting metal magazines and some in an old shoebox on which I (at the age of seven or eight) had written my grandfather’s name several times in pencil and my little sister, Anne, had written her own name in green crayon. Most of the slides turned out to be pictures that my grandfather took during trips with my grandmother between the early 1940s and the early 1960s. I ignored those at first because I was interested mainly in pictures of myself, but eventually I got around to digitizing everything. When I did, I was amazed. Although my grandfather was self-taught and his camera wasn’t much more than a Brownie, he definitely had an eye.

My grandfather was born in 1883 on a farm in Princeton, Missouri, almost all the way up by the Iowa border. The most famous thing about Princeton is that the frontier scout, sharpshooter, and trick rider Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary was born there, or near there, in 1852. Each September, the town holds a celebration called Calamity Jane Days, and the festivities have sometimes included a parade hosted by the hog production division of Smithfield Foods. In her autobiography, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself, Jane mentions Princeton in the second sentence and never again. I visited for the first time a couple of years ago. I looked up old property maps in the local history room of the public library, found the graves of my great-grandparents in the huge town cemetery, walked around the empty town square, and spent the night 35 miles to the southwest, in a motel built by Amish carpenters. So many Amish live in that part of Missouri that signs on the highways warn you to watch out for their horse-drawn buggies, which they drive mostly on the shoulders. I passed several, including one from the back of which two little girls were dangling their bare feet. I waved as I went by, and they waved back. Later, I drove past a big white house. Some older Amish girls in long dresses and white bonnets were playing croquet in the yard; just beyond them, between the house and a barn, bearded elders were sitting in a circle beneath two big umbrellas.

My grandfather’s name was Loyd Cylven Owen. The fact that Loyd has only one l is the result of either semiliteracy or stubborn Missouri common sense; no one knows where Cylven came from. Loyd’s father, Risdon Marion Owen, whose own father’s middle name was Bloodsaw, had local relations named Fleeta, Orvall, Olin, Melton, Ermal, Buena Vista, Armilda Saphroney, and Lucy Orah Van Vacter. Few of those names were spelled the same way in consecutive censuses. Loyd graduated from high school in 1899 or 1900 and was hired as the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, where some of the students were bigger than he was. In 1901, Princeton’s superintendent of schools wrote for him an enthusiastic letter of recommendation, addressed “To who it may concern.” He attended the Chillicothe Normal School, which trained teachers and also offered classes in shorthand, telegraphy, elocution, music, and penmanship. He graduated in 1904 and took a course in “the science of business building” from a popular correspondence school based in Chicago. (The motto of the school’s founder, Arthur Frederick Sheldon, was: “He Profits Most Who Serves Best.”) He moved to Kansas City in 1905. His penmanship got him a job at the Kansas City Life Insurance Company, where he filled in the handwritten parts of insurance policies, wrote letters to agents and policyholders, and eventually became the head of policyholder relations. When he retired, in 1954, the year before I was born, he had worked at Kansas City Life longer than any other employee.

The fact that Loyd has only one “l” is the result of either semiliteracy or stubborn Missouri common sense; no one knows where Cylven came from.

He was married briefly to a woman whose name no one in my family kept a record of; they had no children. In 1923, he married Mary Helen Evans, who worked at Kansas City Life as a secretary and was seven years younger than he was. She had grown up in Independence, Missouri, a few houses down the street from Bess Wallace, later Bess Truman. She never liked Harry Truman, whom she knew slightly. In 1952, after Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, she wrote to a friend, “Well, we finally got that nit wit out of the White House—now I think things will begin to get straightened out. We are all delighted about Ike, and I am sure at least he will know where to get the answers if he does not have them, and not just guess at things like has been done for so long.”

The last name or middle name of many of Mary Helen’s relatives was Boone, including her father, Jerome Boone Evans. That branch of the family was from Kentucky, and when I was young, she told me that I was related to Daniel Boone, a point of pride for me all through elementary school, and maybe still. Jerome Evans was a newspaperman, first in Petersburg, Indiana, and then in Independence. He went broke and later got sick, and my grandmother had to abandon her plan of attending the University of Missouri. She went to secretarial school instead, and Jerome died when she was 20. Some of his problems—perhaps all of them—were related to his drinking, which is probably also what led Mary Helen and her mother to become Christian Scientists. In the May 1932 issue of The Christian Science Journal, in a regular feature called “Testimonies of Healing,” Mary Helen wrote, “A short time after Christian Science had been brought into our home I became very ill with tonsillitis. … A practitioner was called, and within a very short time, possibly fifteen minutes, I was completely healed; and this healing has been permanent.” She credited Mary Baker Eddy (and Jesus) with curing my father’s childhood chicken pox and measles, as well as her own influenza. I had mono during my junior year in college, and while I was sick, she paid a practitioner $3 each for 13 long-distance healing sessions. In a note accompanying her check, she wrote, “Thank you, Mrs. Walker, for the splendid work you did for my Grandson, David, from May 6 to May 18, inclusive.” I knew nothing about this intervention at the time; I know about it now only because I found a rough draft of her note to Mrs. Walker and the strip of paper on which she double-checked her arithmetic.

The death of Mary Helen’s father left her mother destitute; she lived with my grandparents for 33 years, from shortly after they were married until the day she died, a year after I was born. The three of them lived at first in a small apartment in a Kansas City building popular with newlyweds, and then in a small house that my grandparents built in 1925. Mary Helen had kept copies of her father’s newspaper articles in boxes in the basement of their apartment building, but the basement flooded in a rainstorm and everything was ruined. As a consequence, she made sure that the lot on which they built their house was at the top of a hill. My father, Loyd Cylven Owen Jr., was born in his parents’ bedroom two and a half months after they moved in. “A baby’s cry was heard—loud and clear—Little Sonny had come to town,” Mary Helen wrote shortly afterward. “ ‘Perfect and plenty of hair.’ Those were the answers to my first questions. With this, I closed my eyes and rested. There seemed to be so much peace everywhere.” Two years later, in the same bed, she gave birth to a stillborn son—my almost-uncle.

The author’s grandfather on a 1950s trip to Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California (Loyd Cylven Owen/courtesy of the author)

Anne and I called our grandfather Dada and our grandmother Gaga. During Dada’s slideshows, Anne and I would lie on the floor, close to the screen, on an Oriental rug that’s now on the floor of my own living room. I can still hear the satisfying crunch of the lever that advanced the slides, and I can still feel the sparkly grit on the surface of the screen. While we watched, we ate candy that Gaga kept for us in a big pot on the bottom shelf of a cabinet in her tiny breakfast room. The pot was always full of Milky Ways, Chuckles, Bit-o-Honeys, 3 Musketeers, Paydays, Tootsie Rolls, Slo Pokes, malted milk balls, and rolls and rolls of Life Savers, and there were so many big hollow gumballs that I usually chewed two at a time and spat them out, into the kitchen wastebasket, as soon as their candy coating was mostly gone. There was also a drawer, higher up, in which Gaga kept three kinds of stick gum you never see anymore: Beemans, Black Jack, and Clove. We drank 7-Up and Coke from bottles so tiny that nowadays they’d seem like jokes. There were no rules about how much of anything we could have. For breakfast, Gaga allowed us to drink the same instant coffee that she and Dada drank, and she often served us something that I still sometimes make for myself: a soft-boiled egg stirred up with bits of bacon and a piece of toast cut into little squares.

Gaga read to Anne and me on her living room couch, and we took turns twanging a fawn-colored, gumdrop-shaped mole on her forearm: her most fascinating feature. Her skin was extraordinarily smooth and soft. She almost always wore a cardigan. Her perfume smelled like roses, very different from our mother’s perfume. She hung her reading glasses from a cord around her neck. Her washing machine, down in the basement, next to the incinerator, looked like something from a museum, even then. When she spoke of the parts of a chicken, she used the terms that people used to use when they didn’t want to sound lascivious—second joint, white meat, drumstick—and when she made fried chicken for my family, she always served herself the back. She was the first adult I was taller than. She wore open-toed shoes of an old-fashioned type that an ancient babysitter of ours, Mrs. Kruger, also wore. I got my first loafers at the beginning of third or fourth grade, and when I outgrew them, Gaga asked my mother if she could have them for working in her garden.

Dada played Monopoly with me—my version, in which all you did was roll the dice and move your marker around the board, with no thought as to what the deeds, houses, hotels, Chance cards, Community Chest cards, and cash, all untouched in the box, could possibly be for. When I pictured God, at Sunday school, I pictured Him in the usual way, with a long white beard and a long white robe—but always standing at a workbench that was exactly like the workbench in the back of Dada’s one-car garage, and assembling babies from baby parts that He took from an old wooden box that was exactly like the old wooden box under Dada’s workbench.

When I began scanning his slides, I discovered that he and Gaga had traveled much more than I would have guessed. There are pictures taken in Colorado, Las Vegas, California, Mexico, New Orleans, Miami, New York City, and Washington, D.C., and at Monticello and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I learned later that they also took many car trips with my father, almost all of them before the era of the slides, and that the three of them visited all 48 states, plus Mexico and Canada—a major undertaking before interstate highways. In a slide that Dada took in the Ghost Town at Knott’s Berry Farm, in Buena Park, California, probably in the early ’50s, Gaga and the widow of one of her brothers are posing on a bench next to comical plaster statues of two grizzled old prospectors. Gaga is laughing and very tentatively resting her right hand on the hand of Whiskey Bill. As always, she is dressed as if for church, on that day in a navy blue dress with big white lapels and white buttons. One of the few slides in which Dada himself appears, presumably taken by Gaga, is also from Knott’s Berry Farm. He’s sitting on a different bench, with one hand on one knee of each of two “Calico Belles,” and he looks more at ease in his pose than Gaga does in hers. He is dressed as he is in every memory I have of him, in shades of brown and tan. Like other men of his generation, he pulled his pants several inches above his navel and used his stomach as a ledge to hang them from. (The father of a friend of mine once described such pants as “a little tight under the arms.”) Pants in those days weren’t cut the way pants are today. Because men wore them so high, the zippers had to be almost as long as jacket zippers, and the pockets were big enough to carry groceries.

I can still hear the satisfying crunch of the lever that advanced the slides, and I can still feel the sparkly grit on the surface of the screen.

In just about any slide in which Dada appears, you can see his watch chain, the top of his fountain pen, and part of his light meter. I know what the light meter looked like because he let me play with it. It had a brown leather case, a brown leather neck strap, a white domed sensor, and a dial with numbered markings. In those days, you couldn’t take pictures the way you can take them now, by clicking away and checking later to see if you got anything good or at least something you might be able to fix with Photoshop. Dada’s camera had no autofocus, no auto-exposure, no built-in flash, no zoom lens, no high dynamic range. Kodachrome wasn’t cheap, either. Eight hundred slides works out to just a few rolls of film a year—and with slides there are no second chances: no cropping, no dodging, no burning in.

Gaga is an element in many of Dada’s compositions, although she isn’t always easy to spot: in some of the shots she’s off in the distance, off to one side, sitting at a table in the shadows, looking at something in her lap, standing with her back to the camera. Dada must have posed her in the shots that aren’t obviously candids. In numerous pictures, she is wearing or carrying something red—an artistic idea of his or hers, maybe, or just a lucky accident. There are many slides of Gaga’s garden, her main interest after us. She grew flowers, tomatoes, and Kentucky Wonder pole beans, which she prepared, with bits of bacon, in a pressure cooker. An article about her in The Kansas City Star in 1942 said, “We would not refer to Mrs. Loyd C. Owen’s roses as a rose garden, but as a buxom rose bouquet twelve feet in diameter. Sixty-five husky bushes, compactly planted in a round bed, buds as big as your thumb and blooms four and one-half inches across, give that effect.”

Dada took several hundred slides in Florida, where he and Gaga spent parts of many winters between the early 1930s and the early 1960s. Gaga kept records of everywhere they stopped and everything they spent. Her notes show that Dada occasionally smoked a five-cent cigar, that he was a generous tipper (50 cents on a breakfast check of $1.39), that she sometimes spent $2 on a visit to a practitioner, that they got 11.75 miles to the gallon on their Florida trip in 1932 and 15.4 in 1958, and that they were interested—perhaps very interested—in horseracing. Probably my favorite of all the slides is one of Gaga sitting in a red chair on a broad lawn at what looks as though it must be Gulfstream, Hialeah, or one of the other Florida racecourses they visited. She’s wearing red shoes and she has a red purse in her lap and she’s looking through binoculars at something far away. She’s surrounded by dozens of blue, orange, yellow, white, brown, and red chairs and benches, all empty and standing at odd angles to one another. In the background are palm trees, hedges, and blue-and-white-striped awnings. My guess is that Dada spotted the chairs, conceived of the composition, and told Gaga where to sit.

There are many slides of me in the box, and there are almost as many of Anne, who is two years younger, but there’s only one of our younger brother, John. He was born in 1962, and by then Dada was beginning to show signs of dementia. In 1964, he and Gaga decided, regardless, to take their regular winter car trip to Florida. My parents worried about that, and their anxiety was increased by the fact that if anything went wrong, Gaga wouldn’t be able to take over the driving, since she’d never learned how. In their motel room at the end of their first day on the road, Dada asked, “Where are we and where are we going?” Gaga explained and gently suggested that they postpone their trip. The next day, they drove home.

Dada died three years later, at the age of 84, of esophageal cancer. I remember almost nothing about his funeral—I was 12—but I do remember that friends of my parents dropped by our house with things for us to eat, mostly casseroles. One casserole contained ears of baby corn, which I had never seen before. At dinner that night, I put one in my mouth and comically spat it out, like a cartoon double take. I got in trouble and, in penance, decided that to honor Dada’s memory, I would permanently stop clowning around at school. But my resolve didn’t last long—probably not all the way to the end of the next school day, or even to the beginning.

The author as a boy of two or three, in the late 1950s, playing in front of his grandmother’s back-yard rose garden (Loyd Cylven Owen/courtesy of the author)

After Dada died, Gaga lived alone for several years, then engaged an old-lady live-in companion, Mrs. Dalby, who moved into the small upstairs bedroom in which my great-grandmother had once lived. Mrs. Dalby was a toad-shaped farmer’s widow. She was or had been a deacon or a pastor in some apocalyptic sect, and she spent most of her waking hours studying dire religious tracts and making yogurt. She was succeeded by Mrs. Noble, who was nicer.

Later, Gaga had housekeepers who were more like nurses. She got into an argument with one of them and called my mother to settle it: “Carol, was Harry Truman president?” She began wrapping small items in Kleenexes and rubber bands and hiding them among mothballs in a drawer of her dining room sideboard. “Gaga fixed herself the strangest hairpiece the other day,” my mother wrote to my wife and me in 1981. “It was a bit of the bottom of a slip cut off, with lace on one side, tied around her head with two ends hanging down to her shoulders. She said it was the latest thing, and everyone was wearing them. She’d seen it on the TV (although she said ‘the telephone’).” She began signing her letters to me “Mary Helen” or “Mary Helen and Loyd,” even though my grandfather by then had been dead for a dozen years. She complimented my mother on her acting in a play she’d seen on TV that morning, and my mother wondered which charming television personality Gaga had mistaken her for, until she realized that the only thing on at that hour had been cartoons.

One of Gaga’s most cherished possessions toward the end of her life was a photograph that I myself had taken, of a dachshund puppy that my wife and I bought shortly after we got married. Gaga repeatedly told slightly different versions of a story about a week that she had supposedly spent in a New York City hotel, during which our dog crossed the lobby toward her, the cutest little thing she’d ever seen—and then it looked up into her eyes and said, “Yip, yip, yip!” She was so attached to that photograph that my mother told me I might as well stop writing to her myself, and just let the dog do it. One day, Gaga found a photograph of a cat that had once belonged to Anne, and she told the same story about the New York hotel, but now featuring the cat, who “looked right up into my eyes from her little pillow”—here my mother held her breath—“and said, ‘Meow, meow, meow!’ ” (“Good for Gaga,” my brother said.)

My mother wondered which television personality Gaga had mistaken her for, until she realized that the only thing on at that hour had been cartoons.

Gaga lived to be 92, despite never having had much conventional health care. She spent the last year and a half of her life in a nursing home. Moving there from her house confused her, and on her first night she pushed another resident up and down a hallway in a wheelchair. By then, she had stopped wearing her false teeth, which no longer fit. She had to be given a permanent Foley catheter. “That worried us because we were afraid it would bother her, but she doesn’t seem to be aware of it,” my mother wrote. During one visit, my mother found Gaga sitting in her wheelchair, in an exercise class. “She was paying close attention and even trying to lift her arms and legs. Then an aide gave her a Halloween noisemaker, and cheerily told her how to swing it, and she finally said no.”

For some time that day, my mother said, Gaga had been moaning, “Help me.” My mother asked her what kind of help she needed, but couldn’t hear her over the noisemakers. “Finally, I heard her say, ‘Help me to be mature; help me to be grateful’—two good Christian Science words.” Then she pointed to a man across the room and said, “That’s my husband.” My mother asked the aide if she could wheel Gaga over to him, and the aide said she could—that sort of thing happened all the time. Gaga began to introduce my mother to the man, then stopped and said, “You already know him,” and patted his hand. “He smiled at her, then went on shaking his tambourine,” my mother wrote. “I slipped out and wasn’t missed.”

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