Seventy years ago a young man came calling on his former fiancee, hoping for a reconciliation.
She wasn’t at home; her former roommate answered the door.
The roommate was Josie Lou Lydia Walker, and in 1929, after a long courtship, she married the young man, whose name was B.B. Blakey. Their marriage lasted 63 years - until 1992, when B.B. Blakey died at the age of 97. Josie, now 98, still lives in Minneapolis, near two of her children.
Recently Josie Blakey has become the heroine of a wonderful little book created by her granddaughter, Keri Pickett, “Love in the 90s: B.B. and Jo, The Story of a Lifelong Love” (Warner Books, $14.95).
Pickett, a photographer, has fashioned a cumulative portrait of her grandparents in 38 photographs she took when they were in their 90s; she has interwoven these with the love and courtship letters they wrote to each other back in 1928. There are also old family photographs that illustrate the letters and Pickett’s own affectionate commentary.
The result is charming, intimate, surprisingly frank and profoundly touching. Keri Pickett’s mother was uncomfortable with a letter about her own mother’s sex life; Josie Blakey said, “Well, the book would need to have some sex in it or it wouldn’t be natural.”
Josie began writing to B.B. because she hoped to patch up his relationship with his former fiancee. When she took a job at a church in Kentucky, she asked B.B. to write to her every day to deflect the unwanted attentions the minister was paying her.
She and B.B. wrote to each other twice a day for a year. There are more than 700 letters in a correspondence through which they shared their hopes, dreams, aspirations and religious convictions - and fell in love.
At the end of his life, B.B. Blakey said there was not one single day of his marriage when he didn’t tell his wife that he loved her. To this day his widow says, “Bless his heart, he was the nicest person I ever knew.”
Their granddaughter dedicated “Love in the 90s …” to her family “for providing an environment where hugging and kissing and saying ‘I love you’ are as natural a part of life as breathing.”
In 1987 Keri Pickett was a promising young photographer making a name for herself in New York. Although she was only 28, she hadn’t been feeling well, so she went home to Minneapolis to see a doctor her mother recommended.
In a recent phone conversation, Pickett said, “What happened was that I discovered I had cancer. I lost a lot; I suffered a lot. But I’m fine now, after two years of chemo complemented by holistic health care, tai chi and a macrobiotic diet. I also got some huge gifts out of the experience.
“I fell in love, and I got to spend lots of time with my family, and that helped me as much as anything. And without the illness, I never would have been able to spend as much time with my grandparents as I did, and I am very grateful for that.”
During the years of Pickett’s treatment, she concentrated on two photographic topics: children living with serious diseases and the daily life of her grandparents. Supported by awards and fellowships, she has also made projects of photographing the Lakota medicine men and members of the Tibetan community in America. Her work has appeared in People, Forbes, Financial World and other publications.
She hoped, and still hopes, to publish a book of her photographs of children with life-threatening illness, “I Thought I Was the Only One.”
But momentum was building in another direction. In 1991 a leading magazine in Germany saw the pictures of Pickett’s grandparents and gave her an advance to run them, but in fact the first picture of the series to reach publication, “A Hug in Bed at Night,” ran in Life magazine’s special edition on the family in June 1992.
“Life ran it as a two-page spread, and the first thing Grandma did was to fold back her side of the magazine and kiss Grandpa’s picture,” Pickett said. “She got upset that the magazine had separated them because the gutter ran right down the center of the picture.”
But the idea of a book about her grandparents had still not occurred to Pickett. It wasn’t until after her grandfather’s death and her grandmother’s move into an assisted-living community that Pickett discovered the collection of letters her grandparents had exchanged during their courtship.
“The letters were in a ratty old box up in a closet. After Grandpa died, we threw away way too much stuff. But the box with the letters in it got moved over to my mother’s house, where it just sat on the floor.
“We had fished them up to eye level from a wet floor, and one day when I was on the phone, I started thumbing through them. At first I thought they were kind of boring, but then I found a reference to the preacher that was chasing after Grandma. That was an old family legend - how Grandpa had agreed to send Grandma a letter every day so the preacher would think she already had a beau. And I realized that the legend was true.
“After that, I began reading the letters in earnest, and I would take them with me in handfuls when I went to see my grandmother. I would curl up into bed with her and read them over with her.
“Nowadays her short-term memory is nonexistent, but her memory for those older times is astounding.
“There’s a lesson in this for us all,” Pickett says. “Until my grandfather’s death, I didn’t have a clue about these letters. It is a metaphor for how many things people have without realizing that they do.
“We possessed this huge treasure in my own family, and none of us had taken the time to look at it.
“The lesson is to go to the attic and see what you have and to ask questions before you go on the attack and throw anything away. I am sure we threw away some of my parents’ treasures when storage became an issue, and we didn’t even know it.”
Today Pickett works out of a studio building she co-owns with her uncle, Roy Blakey, a prominent New York photographer who has also moved back to Minneapolis. She is in a life partnership with Misha Daniel, a Czech photographer. And she remains in constant touch with her family.
“We are very tightknit,” she says. “I feel so blessed to have my family. I think the book is an extension of that.”
And Pickett regularly visits her grandmother.
“She is very proud of the book and says it is the nicest tribute anyone has paid to her,” Pickett says. “She also told me how happy she was that I was following in her footsteps and working in the family - I had never quite thought of it in that way.
“When she speaks, she comes out with truism after truism. Her heart and her spirit are so visible. I crawl into bed with her, and we wrap our arms around each other, and she says, ‘Keri, I know you love me.’ And I say, ‘I’m more glad that you show me that you love me.’
“That’s one of the lessons of the book: We can love other people, and it seems to feel even better when you really show people you love them through your actions.”
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