As a photographer, sometimes I like to look at photos and sort them in non-linear ways, I think you can learn more about how you see the world by breaking them up in sets that have atypical things like color or objects in common.
A few years ago I started going through my Grandma’s old Cox family photos. I started sorting them by family members and began to notice a pattern. I noticed an awful lot of snapshots that included an important part of the family – the family car. The history and migration of my family can be traced through those photos of the Coxes and their cars.
This photo was taken in the late 20’s in the Ozarks. It looks like the boys were coming in from working in the fields north of Branson, Missouri. Charlie started his life on a farm in Missouri and this looks to have been taken in the area where he grew up.
This is the earliest image I can find with family members posing on a vehicle.
My ancestors were mostly farmers but they also worked on building the railroads in Missouri and Arkansas. This family heritage would be carried on by my Great Grandfather Charlie Cox during the Great Depression when he packed up his family and left the farm to follow the work made possible by the building of the US Highway system. Charlie started life on a farm with horse-drawn implements – his children would be the first generation to live their whole lives in the automobile age. Cars were becoming less and less of a novelty and more of a staple of everyday life in America. Even so, the car was a point of pride to them. Rather than gather around the mantle or on the porch, the Coxes were more likely to gather around something with wheels and a motor.
This looks to be a different car but the background still looks like the old homestead. I recall grandma talking about an old Model T, but apparently it was not beloved enough to share the spotlight in family photos. Her life seemed to be lived on the bumper of a Chevy. It makes sense – if they didn’t have a permanent home to gather around maybe the family car was a bit like a home on wheels – it was a constant in their life, like the TV was to my generation.
Yet another sedan – with Grandma in a gingham dress surrounded by palm trees – definitely a California shot. She would have been about 16 or 17 in this shot and had already quit school to go to work to help support the family. It seems as though they went through cars fairly quickly traveling back and forth across the country.
This next car must have been something special – everyone seems to want to have their photo taken with it. It seems to have been a car that the family obtained while they were all still together in Van Nuys, California.
I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask about this group of photos, so all I really have are my own impressions. This first shot looks like Grandma got dressed up to climb up on the trunk – she looks like she’s in her Sunday best.
Same road, same car – different people. These two shots almost look like they took turns taking each other’s photos on the back of that Chevrolet. On this particular day the car was the star. Was it new to the family?
Same Chevy, different time and place – but still an occasion to dress up for the photo-op. Thinking of the year – this was in the depths of the depression and I know that this was a period of time when Grandma’s family traveled as her father followed the work. The one constant in their lives were the relationships they had with their siblings. They changed schools, addresses, states, churches, jobs – but they all went through it together.
If I were to tally up all the appearances of each member of the family in the old photos to see who was pictured the most, the family car beats out any single family member by a pretty wide margin.
My Grandma and her Cherokee Indian mother all decked out with the new car at the Auto Laundry.
Same car, different outfit – perhaps in front of their home in California. Grandma was 19 and would make only one more cross-country trip with the family before she settled in Hollywood to start a family of her own.
Grandma married Grandpa in 1938 and settled in California. She told me that her mother was a very strict Pentecostal who never permitted her to wear heels or to dance. For her, this time right after she married after the Depression was one of the freest times she had ever experienced. She never was very modest and I remember her gardening in shorts and a bathing suit top. Seeing this shot of her surprised me because of how conservative her upbringing was. She was completely comfortable in her own skin.
The car was the key to mobility for families making the trek west and it was integral to my family and their connections. Charlie literally built the roads his children would travel to stay connected throughout their lives. All but one sibling would settle in the west in either Nevada or California. This shot is one from a road trip to visit family.
The Cox siblings managed to see each other pretty often – hop in the family car and head down the highway. As their families grew they would often swap kids for the summer. None of the Coxes ever knocked on a door when they came for a visit – their home was your home and visa-versa. Just come on in and make yourself at home. Maybe their nomadic childhoods made a change of scenery almost natural for them.
I don’t know who’s car this was but I do know that my Great Aunt Beula loved her a fancy car. I bet it was hers – she liked to have the fanciest of the lot.
Here Grandma and Pop pose in front of their sedan at a family gathering in California in the early 1940’s. Her family made the drive from Nevada to spend the holidays together.
Same car, same day – It makes me think that Grandma and her sister Eula took turns with the camera. The sign behind the car says “Missouri Mule” – wonder what that was about?
My Great Uncle was a real live war hero. He landed in Normandy and drove a tank destroyer during World War II in Europe. He sent my grandmother this photo before he shipped out – a memento of a soldier, his buddy, and a car.
After the War Newt moved into the railroad shack my grandparents rented in Las Vegas – it was about 400 square feet with a garage in back. He worked with my Grandma for a couple of years before making his way to Northern California where he settled down. He made the trip to Vegas often – he would stay at Grandma’s and take us out to the Showboat for strawberry shortcake. Well into his 70’s Newt would show up on my doorstep in Oregon as he made the drive north to Pendleton to reconnect with his army buddies. I loved driving that highway with him and hearing tales of his travels along that same highway with his siblings.
Some of the siblings came to Vegas for Easter in the early 1950’s – photos were taken to mark the occasion in the front yard – of course the cars were in the frame. Baby Randa was the 4th generation in the family to have her photo taken with the family car.
Same car, same day, same Pop – with his aunt and uncle in the lawn in small town Las Vegas.
In 1949 Grandma and Grandpa bought their very first brand new car. It was a Chevy. Grandpa waxed it every week, Grandma loved to drive it. They had left behind the tiny railroad shack they started their lives in Las Vegas in and soon would be living in a brand new custom home on Isabelle Avenue. The girl who moved 17 times in 9 years had resolved to settle down and put down deep roots. This child of the Depression was experiencing real prosperity.
The ’49 Chevy is the car they would drive to visit family in Missouri, Nebraska, and California. It’s the car my Pop would learn to drive in. It’s the car they would park in the driveway of that brand new house that they had both worked so hard for.
Here’s Grandma – on the trunk of her Chevy – a quarter century after that first trunk shot on another Chevy.
When Pop got his license Grandma and Grandpa bought a new Chevy and they became a 2-car family. One weekend while Grandma and Grandpa were in California visiting siblings Pops decided he wanted the ’49 to have a bit more of a “custom” look. He chopped the cab, frenched the headlights, and removed almost all the chrome and door handles. He never finished the conversion but spoke about that car like a long-lost love for the rest of his life.
In 1963 Grandma and Grandpa celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Grandpa bought her a stunning metallic blue Impala as an anniversary gift. When visitors came to the house they were almost always photographed in front of it. Here’s Randa and her sisters Janice and Dara, along with my brother Max in 1965. They are sitting in my little red wagon.
The drives to Nebraska ended after Grandma’s brother Clyde passed away. Grandpa’s family was from Nebraska, but they preferred to fly in for visits. All the siblings were now in the west and could be near each other with just a day’s drive.
This is Grandma at her most vital – working the Caterpillar Tractor at their mining claim in 1968. She was eager to learn to operate it and rarely let anyone else behind the wheel. She could drive just about anything short of a tank. Driving was something she enjoyed, even if she was driving a bulldozer.
By 1976 Grandma was starting to losing her mobility. Grandpa chose this land yacht because it was easy for her to get in and out of. It was their first Ford and the first car they would own that Grandma would never drive. They took this photo the day they brought it home from the dealership.
The very next year Ford announced that they would be reducing the engine sizes in cars beginning in 1978. Grandpa decided that he had to get a car with a big block before they were gone forever. Grandma and Grandpa had a dream of retiring and getting a travel trailer. They hoped to camp and fish for weeks and months on end – but that was not to be. Grandma’s illness made it impossible for her to do the simplest things. By 1980 she would only leave the house to go to the doctor. This 1977 LTD was the last car she ever rode in. This is the last time she was photographed with a car.
Grandma’s siblings continued to make the treks up and down the highway with great frequency well into the 90’s. My Great Uncle Claude would pop up at almost any important occasion – he looked like he wasn’t steady enough to walk, but he still drove cross-country. The last time they were all together was for my Grandma’s 80th birthday in 1995. She had dementia and hadn’t recognized me in some time – but when her brothers and sisters walked into the room she beamed. She could no longer articulate what she was feeling, but her face glowed. Her sister Beula had passed away a couple of years earlier – but everyone else was there. It would be the last time I saw any of them except for Grandma. Their zeal for the open road was not shared by the generations that followed. I lived in Oregon for about a decade and my Uncle Newt made that drive more than any other family member – it was in his DNA to hit the road and go see his family.
My Pop became accustomed to family making their way to his door and I think a lot of his cousins probably shared that experience. Their vagabond parents had done enough driving to last for their lifetimes too.
I’ve rarely had my photo taken with an automobile. I suppose that the family car is more of an ordinary appliance these days. It’s basic transportation – not the vehicle that opens up the world and all its opportunities before you.
These days I live in the Ozarks less than an hour from the place where my Grandmother was born, the rest of my family remains in Las Vegas in the west. My siblings and I see each other a couple of times a year and I usually fly out to see them. I made the drive once after my Pops death and I cannot imagine making that drive without a lot of company ever again, and I think that may be the key. The Coxes made those treks together. They were not lonely drives across the desert, they were sedans filled with family and all that goes with that.
I think that we stand on the shoulders of those who endured the Depression and the War and built the roads that connected us as a nation. Even in this tough economy, things are easier for us. We stay in touch online. We share photos on Facebook. We talk and text without worrying about long distance charges.
Looking at these photos has me waxing nostalgic. Maybe I should put on my best dress and hop on the hood of my Jeep – I could post it on Instagram.