“In the fits of our ages, tales and characters are revealed” … or so it was the case with my grandmother, as dementia stole over her mind during the last years of her life. I have used “fits” and “ages” here in the plural form, as I want to tell you a tale of that composite age, the age that my grandmother was then, and an age in life when our minds return to what we once knew best. This is the way it was for my grandmother Babe Sage (as she was called), and how the specter of a woman called “Ma Seal” came into our lives. Ma Seal, for long years unknown to the rest of the family, was a grand old lady whose identity was only revealed in the last couple of weeks. I hope you will indulge me as I try to explain the whys and hows of it all, and yes, perhaps the “fits” and “ages” of it, too.
We never heard Babe mention Ma Seal, or “Mom Seal” as she was also called. Even my mother Yvonne (my grandmother’s only child) had no recollection of her mother knowing anyone by that name. Looking back, I didn’t expect Ma Seal’s identity would be revealed so piecemeal; first, through a general knowledge of my grandmother’s employment in the early 1930s and a road trip of my own in the late 70s, with the last pieces of the puzzle falling into place through a diary and a collection of photographs at the University of Wyoming.
Oddly, the story of identifying Ma Seal began in the middle of all this, as my grandmother watched the world pass by, looking out the window from her confinement(s) at the Al-Bel convalescent home. Here my grandmother waited, watching “the many” come and go. They say, after all, that we do this as we near the end, that we wait for those we have known and loved to return for us, as if we are queued up somehow in our own private stations.
For the most part, this was an exercise in bittersweet futility.
During those “I waited too long to ask her years,” we’d often bring a photo album of hers to look through, checking to see who in those unidentified images she might still remember. For the most part, this was an exercise in bittersweet futility. However, once in a while my grandmother would surprise us when perusing pictures and declare, My, doesn’t she look just like Ma Seal?! and occasionally say other bedeviling things, things like Mom Seal left here just a bit ago… (As if Mom Seal had only left the room!) We wrote off her statements as sweet phantasms, replete with phrases about someone we’d never heard of. After all, who the heck was Mom Seal, anyway? We combed through the antique images looking for any sign of just who this could be. Had we “lost” an aunt or misidentified a great-grandmother along the way?
There were a lot of pictures to go through (as it seems there always are), but the actual clue as to Ma Seal’s identity wasn’t really in the pictures at all. Unbeknownst to us, the real clue lay on the backside of the pictures – in the photographer’s mark. Nearly all of Nana’s pictures bore the same mark, that of Rocky Mountain Studio, and in a way, later on, this would all make perfect sense. You see, my grandmother Babe Sage had worked there at the “picture studio” in the early 1930s, a studio that doubled as the local newspaper. Apparently, my grandmother was some sort of early twentieth-century Olan Mills worker back in the day, and a wannabe Lois Lane for the local tabloid. (Who knew?)
What we didn’t know was that the woman my grandmother worked for at Rocky Mountain Studio was a lady named Lora Webb Nichols. My grandmother had never mentioned Lora, a lady who documented life in early twentieth-century Wyoming through her photographs, and a woman who lived well into the 1960s. Yes, Lora was an amazing photographer, leaving behind a collection of over 24,000 images displaying not only her own life but events both personal and professional in the lives of those around her. Yet not unlike the mysterious specter of Ma Seal, none of us had ever heard of Lora Webb Nichols. Please, I hope you will bear with me here in the telling of this tale.
In the fall of ‘77, my twenty-two-year-old self took a road trip to southern Wyoming. A beautiful but harsh land, it’s a landscape made for tough people and those who learned how to make something from it. I wanted to understand this and to see what remained of my grandmother’s family there, if anything. As if the Wyoming plains knew this and had arranged for someone to meet me there, I wandered into the post office of this “town of not too many” to make my inquiries.
There by chance I met an “older fellow” by the name of Bert. Now, I don’t know how Old Bert could have known I was coming or expected me, but it was as if he did. A friendly soul, Old Bert showed me what sights there were (mostly who was in the local windswept cemetery) and introduced me around to his wife, a kind lady named Vera, and to a suspicious sort of “townie” (whom Bert later told me was my cousin!), a lady with the very descriptive name of Dot Finch.
Old Bert even took me home, where Kind Vera cooked a great breakfast for me. However, he never mentioned his mother (Lora) or any photographs, or that my grandmother (Babe) had worked for her or, if he did so, as with my hitherto unknown kinship to the suspicious Ms. Finch, I failed to connect the dots. He only said that when he was a younger man he had been great friends with my grandmother Babe’s father, Sam Sage.
It was serendipitous to meet Old Bert and to see the Wyoming sights; I remember that I couldn’t wait to get back home to tell my grandmother. When I did, though, when I told her about Bert and Vera, and Dot Finch, and indeed all that I had seen, my grandmother just smiled – and barely said a word. (Her smile was one of those “way-back-when” sorts of smiles that I seem to be having a bit more of myself these days.) Yes, she knew Kind Vera, and Dot Finch, and certainly Old Bert, her father’s friend, but more than this she would not say.
Many years later, while researching family lines in southern Wyoming, I stumbled upon the work of Lora Webb Nichols. My grandmother had long since passed away, and I did not know of her having any connection to Lora. Learning that Lora was the impetus behind the Rocky Mountain Studio, I wondered what connection (if any) she and my grandmother might have had. It didn’t take long before I realized that their connections were intricate. This led me to a collection of Lora’s diary entries in the book Lora Webb Nichols: Homesteader’s Daughter, Miner’s Bride.
Here I learned that Lora was an intimate friend of my family (on several sides), spanning a period from about 1899 through 1935. It was through this book that I was able to connect the dots (yes, even those to the suspicious Dot Finch), and where I found that Old Bert, the man I’d met decades earlier, was Lora’s son. It was here that I first learned about the amazing collection of photographs that Lora had created. What I didn’t know, even after reading this book, was that my grandmother and her family had also been keenly documented in Lora’s photography.
I recently revisited Lora – well, metaphorically speaking, that is: I revisited the photography of Lora Webb Nichols. Her collection of images housed at the University of Wyoming has (quite wonderfully) been made digitally available for anyone to see. There I discovered some never-before-seen images of my grandmother and her family. I have to tell you that I think my mother would have laughed knowing that pictures of her mother were contained in an “archival collection of photographs.” No doubt she would have exclaimed “How did we get to be so old?”
By now you must be wondering about Ma Seal. After all, explaining just who she was was the whole point of this post. Oddly enough, it was in going through Lora’s collection that I discovered just who “Ma Seal” was, and just who my grandmother had been calling out about and, yes, perhaps even “waiting for.” You see, contained in all those many pictures of Lora’s were more than a few that referred to “Mama Sylvia” – Lora’s mother and Old Bert’s grandmother. There are even pictures of “Mama Sylvia” alongside Sage family members. (Yes, even one with Babe Sage and the ‘suspicious’ Dot Finch!)
I guess it was just the howl of that old Wyoming wind that came through the Al-Bel convalescent home during those “years of the last days” of my grandmother’s life that made us hear what my grandmother was saying as a ‘callout’ to Ma Seal. Perhaps it was a pet name or a trick of an old “high plains” intonation. It’s hard to say. Nonetheless, the secret of Ma Seal’s identity was at last revealed. So listen carefully during those “years of the last days” – you know, when the elders speak in their composite age. Their truth may wait until the bitter end, when their life’s tales and characters, or indeed their likenesses, may yet be revealed.
 Alta Violet (Sage) (Lee) Dixon (1909-2004).
 Sylvia (Wilson) Nichols (1861-1935).
 The Encampment Echo (1919-39).
 Lora Webb (Nichols) (Oldman) Nichols (1883-1962).
 Per lorawebbnichols.org: “A remarkable 24,000 image archive by the photographer, businesswoman, and homemaker Lora Webb Nichols, providing an intimate window into life on the Wyoming frontier in the early 20th century.”
 Encampment, in Carbon County, Wyoming; population 443.
 Samuel S. Sage (1863-1947).
 Rocky Mountain Studio, Encampment, Wyoming (1925-35).
 Nancy F. Anderson, Lora Webb Nichols: Homesteader’s Daughter, Miner’s Bride (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1995).