The whole world turned gold overnight! thought Jessica Goodhue as she tramped through the woods toward Red Dog Creek. Maybe it was because she had been so busy with her studies and after-school chores—not to mention helping to tend her ailing grandfather—that she hadn’t noticed autumn creep up. It was washday, so Jessica had little time to dawdle. She hurried down to the creek to fetch water for her mother.
Red Dog Creek was running high and fast, fed by early rains. The creek’s loud, Jessica thought as she stooped to fill her pail, as loud as the bell at the schoolhouse! Suddenly, above the noise of the water, she heard a horse’s frightened whinny. Looking up, Jessica beheld a big box-shaped wagon stranded in the middle of the stream about a hundred yards away. It was teetering on a broken wheel caused by the force of the current.
Jessica dropped the pail and ran upstream to get a better look. A man wearing a suit, a broad-brimmed hat, and a very anxious expression was in the driver’s seat, struggling with the two helpless horses. “TYLER’S TINTYPES” was printed on the side of the wagon.
“Hey, mister,” Jessica yelled, “I’ll get my pa!”
Soon Jessica reappeared with her father, a big man with a soot-colored beard, leading an ox. Pa quickly fashioned a lasso and tossed it out to the stranger, who caught and secured it to the front of the wagon. Armin, Jessica’s father, tied the other end to the ox’s harness and prodded the ox forward. With its assistance, the horses were able to regain their footing and apply their own strength. The wagon slowly wobbled out of the dangerous current onto dry land.
The man climbed down from the wagon and shook hands vigorously with Pa. Turning to Jessica, he said gratefully, “If it wasn’t for you, missy, I would have lost all my equipment—and maybe my life as well!”
Jessica squinted up at the man. He had a big red mustache that looked like a small, raging fire every time the wind blew it. “Equipment?” she questioned, curious.
“Everything I own is in that wagon,” the stranger told her. “My lens box. My dark room. Everything.”
Jessica’s father pointed to the sign on the side of the wagon. “A tintype is a photograph. This gentleman is a picture taker.”
Jessica’s eyes lit up. “Could you take a picture of us, Mr. Tyler? And of my ma and grandpa?”
The photographer smiled. “I’d be delighted to take some pictures of your family. It’s the least that I can do to repay you for your help.”
“And I’ll help you mend that wheel,” Pa offered. “In fact, why don’t you join us for supper later on? You can bed down at our place for the night and travel on tomorrow after breakfast. How does that sound?”
Mr. Tyler’s smile grew even wider. “It sounds like I’ll be spending the night!”
Jessica beamed. There’d never been a picture taken of herself or her family. Not ever. The thought of a timeless image of those she loved, an image that she could tuck between the pages of her journal and share with those of generations to come, played upon her youthful heart like a sweet song. “I’ll have a picture of Grandpa Goodhue’s hand-me-down smile,” she said out loud, “and it will last forever.”
The photographer inquired curiously, “Hand-me-down smile?”
Jessica smiled up at him. “That’s what Grandpa calls it. He says that it always seems to stay in the family, that it never wears out. Well, I want my children to know about it too. I want them to see his smile. It’s like a blessing, Mr. Tyler. It keeps me warm, just like Ma’s comforter on the coldest nights. Even when Grandpa’s ailing, he smiles. He says that life is too full of grand and glorious things to waste the time God has given us here by moping about. I want my children to know all about him, just like I do.”
Jessica stopped talking long enough to draw her breath, then added, “Bishop Kelsey was talking about it just last Sunday at church. He talked about keeping records—pictures, names, dates, places—and about genealogy.”
Pa smiled secretly behind his beard. If every member of the Church at Harper’s Crossing had as much enthusiasm as his daughter, he speculated, Bishop Kelsey would not have to be concerned about developing this part of the Lord’s vineyard, but about where to house all the people!
The photographer was astonished. “Genealogy?” he questioned. “Where did you come by that big word?”
“I didn’t,” Jessica responded. “I suppose God did. It’s His work. I guess important works need important names. I mean, photography is sort of a big word, isn’t it? And that’s important to you. And speaking of picture taking,” she continued excitedly, “I had better hurry home and fix myself up proper, since it will be the way people will see me forever and ever!”
“How old is your grandfather, Jessica?” the photographer asked later while he set up his bulky lens box in the yard and spread out the legs of the tripod.
Jessica chuckled. “He says he’s old enough to feel guilty every time he draws a breath. He jokes a lot,” she continued, “but he’s going to die soon.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Tyler said sympathetically.
“Oh, it’s all right,” she reassured him. “Grandpa is kind of happy about it.”
Jessica nodded. “He’s anxious to be with Grandma again. She died a few years back, and he misses her.”
“They must have loved each other very much,” Mr. Tyler observed.
Jessica nodded again. “They still do. Ma says they’re closer together than two pages in a closed book in a chapter called ‘Forever.’
“I’m going to miss him dreadfully, I know,” Jessica went on, “but we’ll all be together again in the next life. Besides, he’s going to leave his life’s story to me. He’s been writing it for years and years, a little every day. Ma writes it for him now, because his hand shakes too much to hold a pencil. He tells her things, and she writes them down.”
The photographer stepped back from his camera, a look of admiration on his face.
“Now that is what I call an accomplishment.”
Jessica beamed, just as she had earlier down by the river. “It’s all part of genealogy, Mr. Tyler. You know—keeping records and stuff like that.”
“I’m starting to know,” he commented as he set up chairs for the family portrait. “It all sounds important, this genealogy.”
“God wouldn’t have taken the time to talk about it if it weren’t,” Jessica reasoned.
Mr. Tyler leaned on a chair. “You know, I have a wife and two children back in Claremont. I’d kind of like to leave something of me behind for my kids when life is done with me.”
“There’s nothing better than your personal history, Mr. Tyler,” Jessica asserted. “And with you being a picture taker, you can have lots of tintypes to go with it.” She peered through the lens box, hooded under the black velvet drape. “I’ve already started my own personal history. It’s kind of like a diary—you know, a journal. I write in it a little every night before I go to sleep.”
“What do you write, missy?”
Jessica popped out from beneath the black drape. “All kinds of things: The things I do, the things I feel, my happy times and my sad times. I’m going to write about you, too, Mr. Tyler.”
The tintyper smiled. “I hope I’m one of the happy times!”
Soon the pictures were taken. Grandpa Goodhue, wrapped in a blanket and propped up in a chair, was smiling in each of them. Then the photographer hurried into his cramped darkroom to wet one more especially prepared plate with chemicals. He hurried the plate back to the camera and opened the lens. “Leave it open while you count slowly to twenty,” he instructed Jessica, “then take the picture.”
Jessica’s mouth dropped open. “Me?”
“Yes, indeed,” the photographer said as he sat down in a chair and posed for the camera. “You’re going to take a picture of me—for you—to keep with your life story.”
Jessica was beside herself. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Tyler!” she exclaimed. “But may I take two pictures?”
“One for my journal and one for yours.”
The tintyper winked at Jessica. “I think that would be most proper, young lady, most proper indeed.”
The following morning the early hush was broken by the sound of the photographer’s wagon rattling off through a small, misted grove of dew-sparkled cottonwoods. He waved back at Jessica and her family seeing him off after a big breakfast. He reined in his team for a moment to take one last, long look at the young girl in the calico dress. You’re going to be in my book, too, little lady, he told himself, as one of my very happy times. He tipped his hat, turned, and clucked his team forward.
That Christmas Eve, Grandpa Goodhue closed his eyes for the last time, still wearing his hand-me-down smile. That smile was his Christmas gift to Jessica, along with the now-completed life story in the old, worn book beside his bed. Jessica treasured that book the rest of her life, as did her children, and her children’s children.