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Spring Conference 2009: A Story of a Photograph

Spring Conference 2009: A Story of a Photograph

Image courtesy Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries
Thursday, May 7, 2009

While selecting photographs from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections for a gallery exhibit at the Red Cloud Opera House, I came across one image that I liked very much. In it, Willa Cather is holding a small baby, her niece Helen Louise Cather, and they are outside in front of a house with a curved balcony resting on large pillars. Cather seems to have just lifted the baby out of the wicker bassinet. Behind Willa Cather and baby Helen is a woman I did not recognize, her blurred face caught in a laugh. Much of the image is slightly blurred, in fact, diffusing the light and creating a picture of intimacy and joy. Unlike so many of the well-known images of Willa Cather, here was a scene that understood Cather as part of a family, as an aunt playing with a baby, and not just as an accomplished public figure.

I discussed this image (and the others in the gallery exhibit) as part of the Cather Foundation Spring Conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska, on April 24, 2009. After I confessed that I could not identify the woman in the background of the photograph, Jim Southwick told me, "Mother said it was Mollie Ferris." Jim's mother is Helen Cather Southwick, the baby in the photograph and the woman who donated so many valuable Cather materials to the collections at UNL and the Cather Foundation.

So, now I knew: the unknown woman was Mollie Ferris, a good friend of the Cather family and a name that I had come across often while reading Cather's correspondence.

Later, I was walking through the rooms of the wonderful bed-and-breakfast at which I stayed, and I saw the same photograph framed on the wall, along with others taken at the same time. The B & B, Cather's Retreat, is in the home once owned by Cather's parents, Charles and Virginia Cather. The photographs were on the wall here, it immediately occurred to me, because they were taken here. I stepped outside, and, sure enough, I saw the balcony curving above the pillars.

Though I have spent considerable time studying the life and work of Willa Cather, there is something profound in having one piece of that study-this beautiful photograph-so enriched by the visit to Red Cloud. It came about not because I was seeking information, but simply because I was in this place where so much comes together: family memory, historic buildings, and deep enthusiasm for the tremendous work of a great writer. I must come back every spring to encourage such serendipity.

Andrew Jewell
May 2009