I found her in a thrift store, framed in a shiny metal frame and covered with a sheet of thick glass. She was young. Pretty, too. Garbed in a delicate white dress, she wore a broad bonnet, the type worn early in the twentieth century. Edwardian, I believe. Maybe 1905 or 1906.
The frame seemed in good condition but a strip of clear tape skimmed the top. When I turned it over, I found another photo hinged to the back. This one was in muted colors and portrayed a young woman. Her short wavy hairdo captured the essence of the 1920’s. The girls sported similar smiles, similar eyes, and each had a partially hidden dimple in her chin, a subtle angel’s touch. Given the time span of the two pictures, and the similarities, I knew they must be of the same girl.
Who was she? How did her lovely images come to be on sale at Goodwill?
I lifted the colored photo taped to the frame’s back and was pleased to find writing. Someone had scrawled the name “Aunt Hylda Schmeling” across the cardboard. All doubts about buying the photos vanished. Little chance Hylda’s lost relatives would venture into the GW and see her there. For $2.99 I was eager to give her a home.
Later I made some online searches for more info about this charming girl. The unusual spelling of her first name, and the city where I found the photos helped. I learned more than I could have hoped.
Born in October 1899, Hylda appears in both the 1900 and 1910 census. Like her mother, Anna, she was born in Wisconsin. Her father, Henry, was born in Germany. One census lists Henry’s occupation as “own income.” So, she wasn’t poor.
In 1916, Hylda Schmeling sang soprano in a chorale at her high school. In 1917, she married Paul Jenson in Winnebago County, Illinois, just across the state border. In 1918 a write-up about the Junior-Senior banquet at her Wisconsin high school reads, “Music was furnished by…Hylda Jenson…and several other skilled pianists.”
The questions raced. Why did she marry in Illinois instead of Wisconsin, where her family lived? Did her German father object to her marriage to a Swedish Paul Jenson? Was she happy in her marriage? Hard to believe otherwise, given her glowing face and sparkling eyes.
Then, in a scanned copy of her 1918 yearbook, I stumbled across yet another entry for Hylda Jenson, nicknamed “Jens”. Her Senior class picture reveals the same sweet smile, the same dimpled chin. Next to it reads:
“This little lassie is a wife
And sees no more of courting life;
Her hubby’s in France,
Awaiting the chance
To put an end to all this strife.”
So Paul went off to war. Is that why they married so young? Did he ever come home to her? Or did she live out her years as a young war widow? Sadly, Hylda herself died in 1934 at age 35. Were there children? If not, is that why her charming photographs ended up on the dusty shelf of the thrift store? None left to mourn her now.
Whatever happened in her life, we know that someone once loved her. She has a story to tell; I hope to tell it. Maybe my words won’t reveal her true story, but given when she lived, I hope she would find it amusing.
I often find my inspiration in old photos such as Hylda’s. Where do you find yours? ∞