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An Absence So Great: A Novel (Portraits of the Heart)

Jane Kirkpatrick

  Praise for

  An Absence So Great

  “‘Life is really made of the settings, props, and poses we encounter, then put aside so we can cherish family and faith,’ writes Jane Kirkpatrick in An Absence So Great. Jane embraces the finest qualities of the human spirit in all her writing, including this absorbing story of an early twentieth-century photographer, based on the life of her own grandmother. In An Absence So Great, Jane’s readers—and I am one of her most faithful—will be swept up in Jessie Gaebele’s struggle for independence against a backdrop of prejudice and forbidden love, beautifully written by one of America’s favorite storytellers.”

  —SANDRA DALLAS, author of Prayers for Sale

  “Jane Kirkpatrick has written a gentle and captivating account of people caught between reality and desire, taken from her own ancestry. Her depiction of photography during the early 1900s is fascinating. It filled my senses like delicious aromas permeate a home during the holidays.”

  —CINDY WOODSMALL, best-selling author of The Hope

  of Refuge and the Sisters of the Quilt series

  “Jane Kirkpatrick’s attention to detail and ability to craft living, breathing characters immerse the reader into her story world. I come away entranced, enlightened, and enriched after losing myself in one of her novels.”

  —KIM VOGEL SAWYER, best-selling author

  of My Heart Remembers

  “Jane has an amazing ability to educate and entertain the reader within a single story. Using photographs throughout the book created a unique lens through which the reader gained an awareness of both the characters and the time period. I thoroughly enjoyed following Jessie’s travails as she strove to independently make her own way in a man’s world while holding on to her own ideals and beliefs. Kirkpatrick weaves a remarkable love story within the history of the time to tell her grandmother’s tale. I found myself cheering for Jessie as she faced each new obstacle with an inner strength and sense of self-confidence.”

  —CYNTHIA CLARIDGE, co-owner of Paulina Springs

  Books in Redmond and Sisters, Oregon

  “Stay perfectly still. Wait for it. There… the flash of words drawing you into Jessie’s life. Drawing you in not only with her but sometimes as her. Jane always writes on the cellular level. Her grandmother’s story is word DNA at its best!”

  —J. L. SCHUMACHER, author of “The Loving Voice”

  in Praise Him: An Anthology of Inspirational Poems

  “Both A Flickering Light and An Absence So Great are wonderfully done! It is very fun to read a novel in which I recognize names and places—I work one block from where the Bauer studio once was. Historical fiction has the ability, if done right, to give us a glimpse into another time. Jane makes history come to life, giving it a soul through her storytelling.”


  County Historical Society

  Other Books by Jane Kirkpatrick


  Portraits of the Heart Historical Series

  A Flickering Light

  Change and Cherish Historical Series

  A Clearing in the Wild *

  A Tendering in the Storm*

  A Mending at the Edge

  A Land of Sheltered Promise*

  Tender Ties Historical Series

  A Name of Her Own*

  Every Fixed Star

  Hold Tight the Thread

  Kinship and Courage Historical Series

  All Together in One Place*

  No Eye Can See

  What Once We Loved

  Dreamcatcher Collection

  A Sweetness to the Soul*

  Love to Water My Soul

  A Gathering of Finches

  Mystic Sweet Communion


  A Simple Gift of Comfort


  Aurora: An American Experience in Quilt, Community, and Craft*

  *finalist and award-winning works

  To Jerry,

  who is the loving eye behind the lens.

  Cast of Characters

  Jessie Ann Gaebele a photographer

  Lillian Ida Gaebele a seamstress and older sister to Jessie

  Selma Selena Gaebele a singer and younger sister to Jessie

  Roy William Gaebele a budding musician and younger brother to Jessie, nicknamed “Frog”

  William and Ida Gaebele parents of Jessie and owners of a drayage in Winona, Minnesota

  * Voe Henderson friend of Jessie’s

  Frederick John “FJ” Bauer owner of Bauer Studio

  Jessie Otis Bauer wife of FJ and professional photo retoucher

  Russell, Donald (deceased), Winifred, Robert children of FJ and Jessie Otis Bauer

  Augie and Luise Staak FJ’s sister and brother-in-law

  Violet and Freddie children of Augie and Luise Staak

  Lottie Fort milliner in Winona

  Ralph Carleton a Winona evangelist and confidant of Mrs. Bauer

  **Mrs. Suzanne Johnson owner of a photographic studio in Milwaukee

  Henry and Mary Harms Jessie’s landlords in Milwaukee

  Marie Harms daughter of Henry and Mary

  *Joshua Behrens business student at Marquette University, Milwaukee

  **Hilda Everson Jessie’s employer in Eau Claire

  Virginia Butler Jessie’s employer in Bismarck

  Herman Reinke FJ’s North Dakota ranch partner

  Charles Horton president, First National Bank of Winona

  George Haas owner of Polonia Studio in Winona

  The photographers identified in the text, including those at the photographer’s association meeting, are actual historical figures.

  * Characters are created from the author’s imagination.

  ** Jessie Gaebele’s actual employer’s name in Eau Claire was Johnson; the name of her Milwaukee employer is unknown.

  How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?

  —adapted from Coastal Home by MARK DOTY

  Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it enkindles the great.


  And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence.

  —MATTHEW 10:11

  Baby Misha

  December 1910, Johnson Studio, Milwaukee

  5 × 7 Graflex


  A photograph, like life, often reveals as much about who’s absent as who’s there.

  This child’s name is Misha, the son of Russian immigrants who arrived at the Johnson Studio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The woman, the mother and wife, or so I assumed, wore a brightly colored headscarf tied beneath her square chin. The cloth framed a somber face the color of a toddler’s first tooth. A thick shawl with fringe shimmered as she whispered, comforting the baby wrapped in her arms. The man’s hat and suit and upright stature, with his dapper look and gentle eyes focused on the child, reminded me of Fred.

  They were a contrast, the man appearing much older than she, and I wondered if he might not be the woman’s father rather than a husband, perhaps grandfather to the child; but from their interactions I decided they were married with some age between them. Age differences always intrigue me, what with Fred’s being twenty-six years older than I.

  From within the cocoon of her clothing, the woman brought the child out, holding him up to me with two hands beneath the baby’s arms, which stuck straight out like a scarecrow, wearing a red wool jacket and a knitted cap of yellow, red, and black yarn.

  “You take? Pho-to-graph,” she demanded, spr
eading the last word as though each syllable merited the same weight.

  “Yes,” I said. “But not today.” I closed the door they’d stepped through so I could shut out the swirling snow set free from the porch I tried to keep swept. “But not today.” I didn’t want to lose the commission, but by late afternoon of a Wisconsin December, night consumed more of the day than a photographer liked. I shook my head, waved my hands palms down. “Not today.”

  “No?” the man asked. “No?”

  The woman pulled the child back into her woolen shawl, shrugged her shoulders at the man.

  I pointed up toward the window. “No light,” I said. “I could use the flash, but it casts deep shadows on the subject.”

  The Johnson Studio wasn’t anything grand like the Bauer Studio of Winona, Minnesota, the one I’d been trained in. It lacked the skylights that brought in the very essence of a photographer’s life: warm natural light. “You come early tomorrow,” I told him. “Your son can wear the christening dress again.”

  “Today. We must do it today,” the man said in accented but better English than the woman’s.

  A hard jaw expressed the woman’s displeasure, and the child began to fuss. The woman was definitely the mother. The eyebrows on the child stretched in soft brown lines over blue eyes just like those on the woman who held him. The child’s mouth derived from the man who spoke in Russian now. A pleading tone carried his words.

  They argued. Agony threaded his posture with palms outstretched, pleading. He wanted this photograph more than she did.

  I picked up the appointment book and showed them an empty space, then pointed to the Seth Thomas clock sitting on my desk. “Nine. In the morning,” I repeated, all the while looking at the child’s face, the expressive eyes so full of trust and yet with a hint of concern, as though he could feel the tension between these adults.

  “Today.” The man turned back to me. “Even with poor light. It must be today. Tomorrow she goes away.” His voice cracked as he averted his eyes.

  “You might not be happy with the result,” I told him.

  “It will be all I have,” he said. “They go back. The photograph is all she leaves me.”

  The emotion in his voice was likely more than he wanted to share with me, but I found that this often happened in my studio. Photographs could expose discomforts, which often led to confessions.

  I nodded assent and brought them into the operating room, that place within a photographer’s studio where light and living begin their journey onto paper and posterity.

  The woman advanced as I moved the chair around to capture whatever I could of the fading light. I set up a lamp.

  It was not an easy exposure. I thought of what Fred, my mentor, would do in the same circumstance, then stopped myself. I’d not compare the results. I tried my best not to allow thoughts of anything Fred did to come into my head, though I failed at that more often than not. A human weakness. I was here in Milwaukee to learn what I needed to pay attention to, and it wasn’t memories of Fred.

  I turned to see the woman remove the child’s woolen jacket and cap and waited for her to remove her own, as I thought they’d all be in the photograph. But she handed me the child.

  “Just Misha,” the man said.

  That decision, too, revealed more than they perhaps intended: the mother and child were leaving, but only the child was to be captured for his memory.

  Misha’s weight was no more than a watermelon. Delicate tatting stitched its way up the skirt. The flounced collar emphasized the roundness of the infant’s face. My sister Lilly, a seamstress, would have approved of the fine handstitching on the child’s garment, quite likely a christening gown. Misha looked angelic with those trusting blue eyes staring into mine.

  “It will be better if you hold him,” I said. “He’ll look more relaxed.”

  The man shook his head. “Just the child.”

  The woman pointed to a plant stand with a turned pedestal of maple and a flat seat that held a large fern. I moved the child to my hip. I had a younger brother and sister and carried infants that way, my arm around Misha’s waist, his stocking legs dangling loose. Did the mother want the plant in the photograph? To my surprise, she removed the fern, set it on the floor, then brought the pedestal to sit in front of where my camera focused. The mother took the child from my arms and plopped Misha on the plant stand, allowing the skirt of the dress to flow down onto the turned pedestal. The woman smiled for the first time, revealing a single dimple and one broken tooth.

  I had to admit, Misha’s milk white dress against the dark pedestal presented a lovely contrast, but also a precarious sight, with the child barely able to sit by himself balanced on the stand. He’d have to be braced, and I wasn’t sure he’d like the discomfort of the posing stand. It would be so much better if the mother just held him on her lap or we placed the child in a chair, safely propping him up.

  “You can’t let him be by himself,” I said. “The photograph will take too long; he won’t be able to sit still. It will blur.” It would be unsafe too.

  The woman misunderstood and released her hands at that moment, allowing the child to simply be.

  “No!” I shouted as I reached for the baby. Misha’s eyes grew wide, and he made a small catlike sound of anxiety, turning to his mother.

  “I’ll have to brace him,” I said. I turned to the man. “Tell your wife she’ll have to hold the child steady until just before I take the picture. To be safe, even with the brace.”

  The man nodded, spoke to his wife, who secured the child while I brought the posing brace from the wardrobe where I kept photographic equipment not often used. The infant kicked his feet and smiled. How little it takes to appease us when we trust those around us to keep us safe.

  I secured the brace, which looked like large tongs of a tuning fork, slipping them around the slender ribcage of the child and attaching the base to the plant stand. I fluffed the dress out to cover the contraption. It would be there just long enough to expose the film. “You stay holding him until I signal,” I said. The man translated, and the woman nodded.

  I worked fast then, racing against the light and my own anxiety about the security of the child. I rolled my Graflex to the best angle, checked the position in front of a dark backdrop, then lifted my hand up as I bent beneath the cloth. I held my breath.

  But the mother appeared to have great confidence, for she stepped back before I signaled, and farther than necessary to be out of the picture. Her husband spoke to her, and she returned as the child wiggled. I straightened up, took a step forward, but the brace held firm. For how long, I couldn’t know.

  I glanced up at the feeble light then and whisked back behind the camera, pushing my own long skirt to the side with a swish. Who knew the story behind the separation of this family? It was something I’d never know, even if the language didn’t barricade such a conversation. How we put people we love in awkward poses is not a subject easily discussed even among intimates, let alone a photographer and her subjects.

  The mother’s choice of the plant stand was an odd one, and yet it created a lasting impression. As I looked at the child through the lens, Misha sat perfectly apart, a singular image of innocence detailed with delicate eyes and nose and ears and hands balled into soft fists. I wondered if I’d ever give birth one day to such perfection, if from my body would come a child created out of love, and if I did, would I one day put her into a fragile position even for a moment? Would I trust what I loved to an unseen brace?

  Time and light faded. I lowered my hand as the signal. The woman stepped out of the picture. I exposed the film.

  She had let happen what might, trusted in a strength she could not see.

  It’s what I think of each time I see this portrait; it’s the wish I cherish for my life.

  Setting Things Right

  Milwaukee, Wisconsin, four months earlier

  JESSIE GAEBELE’S THOUGHTS AT TIMES behaved like a toddler’s: one moment they stayed safely hid
den in the pump organ’s shadow, and the next minute they popped up to pull out all the stops, increasing in volume, shouting in her head, underscoring the aching loneliness that defined her days.

  Today, as she stood in this men’s refuge permeated by the scent of oil and grease and gasoline, she flicked away those toddler voices. She had good reasons to be here. She was eighteen years old, it was 1910, and young women alone were going places they’d never gone before. She didn’t need to be embarrassed or afraid. Why had she come to Milwaukee if not to prove to herself and others that she could make wise choices and pursue a dream? One day she’d have her own photographic studio back in Winona, Minnesota, where her family lived. Her future beckoned, but she would return only when she’d proven to herself that she was in control of her heart.

  “It might be best if you had your father look at it, Fräulein,” the proprietor cautioned.

  “I’m not purchasing it for my father,” Jessie told him, a man her father’s age she guessed.

  “Ach, I’m sorry. You look so young. Your husband then.”

  Jessie took a deep breath. “It’s for my own use.”

  The proprietor’s eyes widened. “Ah, well, do you have”—he looked over her small frame—“the stamina to make such a purchase? Riding an Emblem’s not like riding a bicycle or a horse, if you know what I mean.”

  She didn’t know how to ride an Emblem or a Pierce or any other kind of motorcycle. She didn’t know where she’d learn or practice, or where she’d keep it once she figured out a way to afford the gas. But it was the perfect accoutrement, so much more distinctive than a certain kind of hat or a new pair of shoes. Jessie needed inspiration with fall closing in on her, the days soon shortening into long, lonely nights. Winter always made her dreary, and this first one away from her family promised to weigh her down like the pile of wool quilts on the bed that she no longer shared with her sisters.