By Susan Phillips
Jim was gone. He died a hero in the Great War and Sally would never see him again. Her last glimpse of him was in his coffin, lying peacefully in his uniform, with a few medals pinned on his chest. Just before the casket was closed, his mother removed the medals and offered one to Sally. She thought of refusing, but Jim had been so proud of being a soldier that she took it and pinned it on her jacket.
They had gotten engaged six months before war broke out and then sensibly decided to wait until the war was over. “I’ll be home before Christmas,” Jim had assured her when she saw him off at the train station, “and then we’ll have the grandest, largest wedding you’ve ever been to.”
He hadn’t come back that first Christmas nor the next nor the next and when he finally returned, it was in a coffin. Although they hadn’t married, Sally thought of herself as a war widow and had worn black for a year. She still wore his medal pinned to her jacket.
As soon as Jim left for France, Sally found a job in a lawyer’s office. She made tea every morning, filed documents and eventually learned to use the typewriting machine. She rented rooms in a respectable boardinghouse and now lived a quiet, not unhappy life.
A year after Jim’s death, Sally visited her parents and decided to go through the trunks she had left behind in the attics. She flipped through old schoolbooks and half-read novels, fingered scarves and shirtwaists she would never wear again. In the third trunk she found her almost-forgotten trousseau. Had she and her mother really spent so many evenings and weekends tatting and then sewing lace on nightgowns and robes she had never worn, would never wear? And then she found her wedding dress, the ivory silk a bit yellowed. She had finished sewing it before that first Christmas, had tried it on once and folded it away. She would not put it on again, she had decided, until her wedding day. And there it had lain for years. Sally sighed. She was an unmarried war widow; she would never wear that beautiful dress. But before she left her parents’ house she packed up the dress and took it back to the boardinghouse.
Mr. Smythe owned a small photographic studio and specialized in family portraits. He enjoyed coaxing small children to smile and kept a pile of dolls and toy trains for them to hold if they squirmed too much. He always knew what to say to relax his clients. “I’ve never seen a more radiant bride.” “You must have had a very brave war.” “Happy anniversary. You both look too young to be married twenty years.” He didn’t encourage anyone to laugh, but a smile was fine if the client could sit still long enough. If they moved the photograph would come out blurry and no one wanted that.
Mr. Smythe had been in business for years. He took photographs of girls in their christening gowns and their wedding gowns. He photographed boys in their sports uniforms and in their Army uniforms. Some had received their orders so suddenly that they didn’t return to claim their final portraits. Some, he knew, would never return. He kept those photographs in case a family member came later to pick it up. Maybe, he thought, there was a way to use an old photograph to console a grieving mother or wife. Some soldiers came back in coffins, and Mr. Smythe had even taken photographs at their funerals—often with grieving families surrounding the young men. When he was first starting out, Mr. Smythe thought that people wanted photographs to remember their happiest moments. Sometimes that was true. But often people wanted photographs for other reasons.
It had been foolish to bring her wedding dress back. And it was even more foolish to hang it up in the closet where she saw it every day. What had she been thinking? Sally considered donating the dress to charity, but she could never bear to part with it, and give it to some poor bride.
One day Sally found herself in Mr. Smythe’s studio, arranging to have her portrait—her wedding portrait—taken. If he was surprised he didn’t show it. Perhaps he had been asked to take similar photographs.
Mr. Smythe saw a tall young woman with brown eyes and brown curls, with the same sad and determined expression on her face he saw on so many other young women. This girl obviously thought she’d never marry. And that was probably true. So many young men had died in the Great War. The way things were going the war was destined to leave a generation of spinsters and widows.
Mr. Smythe pushed an overstuffed plush chair over and helped Sally find a comfortable, flattering pose. He located a light blue backdrop and arranged it behind her. Then he stepped behind his camera and hunched over beneath the black cloth. She was a pretty girl, he thought. If he hadn’t been married for twenty-five years he might have considered inviting her to tea after the sitting. Although he liked to tell his Dora all about his day, he would never share that foolish thought with her.
Sally had been nervous at first, but Mr. Smythe’s gentle jokes and old-fashioned compliments calmed her down. As she sat in the chair she tried to imagine Jim standing by her in his uniform or in a formal suit and top hat. The thought of Jim and her undying love for him comforted her.
Afterwards Mr. Smythe told Sally to return in a week and the portrait would be ready. What a nice girl she seemed, he thought. She would have made her young man a good wife.
Sally returned the next week. As soon as she saw the photograph she started crying. She looked exactly as she had dreamed she would on her wedding day—arrayed in the lacy gown and large hat, looking both nervous and happy. And there behind her, in his full uniform, was a proud, serious-looking Jim.
Spirit photography was popular from the 1860s until the early 20th century. There were a few different techniques of how to incorporate dead spirits into photographs with living people.
Category: Featured, Fiction