Grandmother Dinah Mae’s Pearls, 1925


By Jock Lauterer

A recent column focused on the documentary significance of the simple snapshot, the older the better. Cleaning out a desk drawer this week, I ran across another example that testifies dramatically to the emotional power of such seemingly innocent images.

This photograph comes from an introductory photo class I taught 14 years ago for first-years at UNC in which I asked my students to bring to class a meaningful family photo. Crystal Essex of Marion, Alabama, brought in this stunner, and this is what she wrote in the margins.

I know you have never seen the lady in this photo … and neither had I. This is my grandmother posing for her senior high school portrait from Marion, Alabama, in 1925. This is my grandmother, and she will always be.

She was 18 years old in the photo. I was born in July of 1986 and missed the pleasure of meeting my grandma by two months. My father told me a lot about his mother, but I always wanted to see her for myself.

After cleaning up a room in my grandparents’ home, my aunt found the photo and made duplicates for each family member. Now, I can see her more often.

As I look at the picture there is one thing that stands out — my grandmother’s pearls. I imagined that she wore those pearls because they signified beauty, class and love. That’s just what I want to exhibit to the world.

But I don’t have those pearls. At the moment, I believe one of my aunts has my grandmother’s pearls. But my dad said that I may get them one day. I pray that those pearls come my way, not because I love jewelry, but because they belonged to my grandmother, the woman I never met. From this experience, I have learned that a single detail in a photograph can have an enormous past, just as the pearls in my grandmother’s picture do.

Fast forward to the present: Thanks to the good folks at the UNC alumni office, I was able to find Crystal, 34, married and the mother of three, working in Dallas as a public relations specialist. Though Crystal says with a laugh that she is still waiting to get her grandmother Dinah Mae’s pearls, she named her youngest daughter after the lovely lady wearing the necklace. Passing on the family legacy.

Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.

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1 Comment on "Grandmother Dinah Mae’s Pearls, 1925"

  1. I want more, Jock Lauterer. I want to know more about your grandmother, your family, and the string of pearls. Thank you for considering my request.

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