Lost to time

by Terry Hogan

I have a large portrait hanging on the wall of my home office. It is not of a relative. I don't know anything about him and little of the history of the portrait. But his face and attire attract me. He is someone with a past-- someone with a story to tell. But he is an ancestor lost to time.

His portrait was retrieved from an old farmhouse attic in Knox County, a few miles west of Lake Bracken. The farmhouse had been part of an estate, settled, and had been relegated to a rental property. As is the fate of many rural houses rented, it is likely gone now, with the land in tillage.

The portrait had been forgotten, ignored, or discarded in the attic, left to an uncertain, but likely fatal future. It was retrieved by my grandmother, who was herself, quite elderly at the time. She had lost her husband. But she had been a farm wife all her life and only knew farm work. She became a housekeeper for a young, single farmer. He rented the house and the farmland. It gave her lodging, a purpose in life, and a large garden to tend. No weeds were tolerated.

She added this unknown, oak-framed portrait to her safekeeping. I don't know why she took a particular interest in it. That too, is lost to time. She did had similar portraits of her husband's grandparents who had come to Wataga in 1850 from Sweden. She kept care of these portraits, now that her own husband, Wesley, had died. So two portraits of Williamsons, became three, with this unknown character finding a place.

In time, the three portraits were passed on to my mother, who has now passed all three on to me. The story of this non-ancestor was also given. The two Williamsons, currently hang in the living room. Their stern countenances provide a somber influence, and are sometimes the source of tactful inquiry. This non-ancestor found a place in our home-office where I do most of my writing. He looks over my left shoulder. He neither approves nor disapproves, but he reminds me of the fate of lost ancestors.

For reasons unknown to me, he reminds me of a sea captain. This seems an unlikely profession for someone who ended up in an attic in Knox County, Illinois, but perhaps not. This seems far less unlikely an occurrence than Swedish peasant farmers ending up in Knox County, tilling virgin prairie soil. So perhaps he is a sea captain. One could speculate that he, himself, after ferrying a number of Swedes or Germans, or Irish from their homeland to America, finally caught ''American fever.'' Perhaps he sold his sailing ship in New York harbor and headed west.

This unknown non-ancestor of mine was clearly in his later years, and probably at least moderately successful. He has his portrait done and it was framed in a large oak frame set it with an ornate gold (color) and burl margin. This was not an inexpensive gesture. Likely he was tied to the land and the house, perhaps in the line of ownership, perhaps even the first owner. The estate was settled, but he was left behind.

He has a history. He had successes and failures. He most certainly would have been married, perhaps more than once. He likely had children. Where did he come from? When did he arrive? How did he make his living? How did his portrait end up in a farmhouse in Knox County? How did he (his portrait) get abandoned to collect attic dust, subject to the risks of countless storms and the heat and chills of the attic?

So now he is my adopted non-ancestor. I am very lucky that I know what I don't know about the history of the portrait. Otherwise, I might have spent years, studying the face, looking at old family photos, and trying to figure out who this guy was and where he fit in my family history. Was he a Williamson, a Marsh, a Johnson?

I don't know who he is, only who he isn't. He isn't my ancestor, but I believe I would have been proud to have him in the family. Apparently someone wasn't, or just didn't care. When this portrait was left behind, old portraits weren't worth much so unless he was important to someone, he was just something to be left behind. He shared the attic with whatever transitory critter took up residence-- mice, chipmunks, sparrows, perhaps even a raccoon. His portrait's life probably has an interesting tale to tell, if only it could. But what is obvious, is that is was lucky. Damage was minimal. No water damage to the portrait, no chew marks on the fame. Some dings to the scroll work, but nothing major.

So this non-ancestor hangs on the wall, looking over my shoulder, as I write. From the un-insulated attic to a heated and air-conditioned home. He is better cared for, but his story remains untold. Perhaps he is lost to time.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 13, 1999

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