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The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos

The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos
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A cynical view finds Hine as exploitative as the mill owners. He used these children, even if it was for the best of intentions. He took what he needed from them, and by the time they’d blinked the phantom glare of his flash from their eyes, he was gone, never to be seen again.

In today’s society, Hine’s pictures would lead to something. Police would bust down the doors of these factories and ferry the children away to better lives. But that’s not what happened at the turn of the 20th century. These children returned to their spinning machines and their looms and went back to work. They grew up and lived their lives. Many of them likely forgot their brief encounters with Hine. Almost none of them ever saw their photographs or heard how they were used.

“For me, this is an enormous album of unfinished stories,” Manning says, gesturing to his binder. Hine had taken only snapshots: two-dimensional renderings of a single moment in time. Manning needs more than that: “I look at one of these kids, and my reaction is: Whatever happened to this kid? Is that it? Is this all I know? Is this all I’ll ever find out?” That’s Manning’s goal: He wants to find out what happened next. His work is a gigantic footnote that can be filed away someday next to Hine’s photos in the Library of Congress as a reminder that these children were more than just sad pictures. They are more than names on headstones.

When Manning finally catches up to Mamie Laberge, he finds her as an old woman. She appears to him, once again, in a white dress. Her youthful grace has been replaced by the stooped plumpness of age, but she’s smiling. Surrounded by her siblings, she stands on a manicured lawn as they pose for a family portrait in the late 1960s. By this time, Mamie has been married to the same man for more than 40 years. She’s had three children, and, although no one today remembers how, she’s lost parts of two fingers on one hand. In another 10 years or so, she’ll pass away after a long illness, but of course she doesn’t know that yet. Manning does.

“You see their whole life histories in fast-forward,” Manning reflects. “It’s so haunting to see them as children and then see them as 60-year-olds. These kids in 1911 … Think about all the things they didn’t know about the future of the country. Most of them probably thought, like most kids, that their lives would always be the way they were then.”

The photo had come from Karen Czelusniak, one of Mamie’s great-nieces. There were 14 Laberge children in Mamie’s generation, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, so there are plenty of descendants for Manning to track down. He’s taken his time, doing more face-to-face interviews than he has for any other case. Mamie brought him to Winchendon, so he feels it’s only right that hers should be the last story he completes before he leaves.

In the spring of 2010, Manning knocks lightly on the side door of Esther Grimes’ home. She’s the granddaughter of Henry Laberge, one of Mamie’s older brothers, and one of the few direct descendants of the family still living in Winchendon. She shows him into the dining room, neatly decorated with keepsakes and photos. Manning places a bulky tape machine on the table and hits Record.

It doesn’t take long for Manning to realize that Esther is a kindred spirit. As he places his binder of photos on the table, she matches it with one of her own. Esther is a keeper–one of those people whose calling is to tend the family tree and ensure that none of its branches ever falls off. The two of them talk shop for a time, comparing the usefulness of various genealogical Web sites and other resources. “Have you ever been to the Worcester library upstairs? The third floor?” she asks. Manning shakes his head no. “Oh, oh,” she replies. “The directories are there, the microfilm. The whole third floor is what you want to do.”

As the conversation turns to Mamie and her siblings, an outline begins to emerge. Like most of the Laberge children, Mamie left Winchendon as a young adult. She moved to Worcester, where she married Frank Mossey, a shoe salesman, in 1921. She lived there for the rest of her life. Esther visited her home only once and remembers little about it other than its extreme cleanliness. Most of Esther’s memories of Mamie are from family reunions at her grandparents’ house. The Laberge children had grown up on Mill Circle, a small loop of factory-owned houses in the shadow of the Spring Village Mill in Winchendon Springs. Most of the family left, but Henry stayed, and so when the siblings would meet, it was often in the same neighborhood where Lewis Hine had found them.

Esther shows a photo that was taken before her time. It’s 1944, and 24 members of the family, spanning three generations, are crammed in front of the camera at Henry’s home at 4 Mill Circle. His son, Amedee, has come home from the service, and he’s standing in the center in his uniform. Mamie has swiped the hat off his head, and in the photo you can see her wearing it as she peers over his shoulder with a guilty grin. It’s the most alive she’s looked in any of the photos she left behind.

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