The Most Rustic Chic Couple I Never Met

This is Charles Wright and his wife Mariman Gaither Wright.  They are my great great maternal grandparents.  My mother sent me this photograph not too long ago and it is one of my most cherished possessions.  To me it is a very romantic photograph, probably the only one they ever sat for in their lives.  It’s the essence of “American Gothic” and the epitome of rustic chic.

This photograph was taken on their Alabama farm with that magnificent cornfield as the backdrop.  Why would a photographer pose them there?  Better light?  Porch on the house too shady?  Cornfield more interesting than the house?  Was this shoot planned well in advance?   Or did they get word from a neighbor that morning that a “photo-grapher” was nearby and he could take your picture today on his way through town?  After all, it would only take a couple of hours for him to capture your image.  Maybe this was on a Sunday after church. . . goodness no, not on Sunday!!

I have spent hours studying their wizened faces, their poses and their dress, trying to figure them out.  How I would love to journey back there to that day and take it all in.  Were they happy?  Content?  Hardworking?  Scrappy?  What were their day to day lives really like? 

I have been told that Charles was a farmer and a preacher.  He was born January 29, 1844 and died March 14, 1924.  Doing the math he would have been 17 when the Civil War broke out so you know what that meant for him.  He was a private in Co. D 12 of the Alabama Infantry.  His tombstone in the quiet country cemetery in which he rests is inscribed with the simple epitah:  “Died as he lived – a Christian”. 

Look at his beard – it’s so fluffy and clean.  It’s also so large it has its own zip code.  His cutaway jacket is very smart and his trousers have a straight and pressed crease as sharp as a tack.  In my photo his shoes have a nice shine on them.  I like to think he’s got a grin on his face, that maybe he’s highly amused with the whole thing.  But then it’s a bit difficult to confirm under all that shrubbery.

And Mariman (isn’t that the greatest name?).  She looks a little more stern than her husband and her face reminds me so much of my grandmother.  I wonder what’s on her mind?  Maybe she’s thinking she wishes this nonsense would move along a bit quicker because there’s still supper to fix or the chickens to feed or those clothes won’t wash themselves.  I understand Mariman had some Indian blood in her but I cannot remember which tribe. 

Was her hair really as short as seen in the photo?  Or would it have been pulled back and plaited in a braid as thick as a horse’s tail and actually cascaded far past her waist?

And her dress – so modern in its graphic plaid.  Was it her best dress?  Was it her only formal one?  What were the colors?  Did she make it herself?  Where did she get the fabric?  How long did it take her to sew together?  Did she have a dress pattern? I can’t imagine a woman wearing something floor-length like that for every day, even way back then.  Look at the myriad of buttons that run down the front.  A farmer’s wife would surely need something more easily donned and removed.  Examine her brooch – probably her best piece of jewelry.  Perhaps it’s her only piece as there’s no wedding ring that I can see.

Mariman (Mary) Gaither was born February 6, 1847 and died March 1, 1926.  She lies alongside Charles in that quiet Alabama country cemetery.  Whenever I go home (Southerners always call where they came from “home”, even if it’s not really home anymore), I try to go visit them and the other side of the family too. 

Charles and Mariman are the unofficial keepers of my antiques and design shop and they keep watch over my right shoulder.  I look at them several times each day and wonder what their lives were really like.  Was it hard?  Harder than a lot of us have it now?  Was it simpler?  Undoubtedly in many ways it was. 




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