A Festival of Flags

Today is Memorial Day here in the U.S.  It’s celebrated with family get togethers, barbeques, concerts, parades, races, car shows, about anything you can think of to bring people together. Originally, it was created to honor those who served in our nation’s military and that’s still the real reason for the holiday, which, over time, has come to mark the start of summer in most of the country. (Summer comes about a month and a half later to the Pacific Northwest.)

But in small towns across America, people still take time to salute those who served and they do it in ways that aren’t the big spectacles you find in places like Washington D.C. or our other large metropolises.  To me, those small town commemorative services seem more genuine and reflect the true heart and soul of this country. Just ordinary people paying tribute to fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins who gave their lives in military service to this country.

More than 1700 flags line the paths of the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend.

Northwest Washington state, where I live now, is nestled in a corner of the U.S. considered to be progressive politically and not so prone to an overabundance of patriotic fervor even though the state has a fair number of military bases located here.  Yet we have one of the most moving Memorial Day displays I’ve ever seen.

The Festival of Flags is sponsored by the local American Legion post and a local funeral home. It takes place at noon at the Greenacres Memorial Park located in neighboring Ferndale. I only just discovered this ceremony a couple of years ago when a friend of mine mentioned that she was attending. I suspect that many local residents, like myself, still aren’t aware of it.

A quiet bench offers a place for people to reflect.

The three-hour event starts at noon with food and music, this year provided by the barbershop group known as the Mount Baker Toppers. The opening act is followed by a short remembrance speech delivered by a military officer from somewhere in the region. This year’s ceremony will close with the unveiling of a new World War I memorial and the release of a dove, a nod to the peace that never quite seems to last for long in today’s world.

However the true highlight of the event is the more than 1,700 American flags that flap in the wind and line the pathways of the beautiful cemetery grounds throughout the Memorial Day weekend.  I went out to the cemetery two years ago just to have a look.  It was the year after my Dad had died–hard to believe it’s now three years since his passing–and I felt going out to the cemetery, particularly on Memorial Day, was a way I could remember him and pay my respects since I couldn’t visit the little country cemetery in Kansas where he and my mother are buried.

My first glimpse of the Festival of Flags was from the rain spotted window of my car,.

Memorial Day was rainy and dreary that year. But the day brightened for me when I pulled off the road, drove through the cemetery gates and caught my first view of the red, white and blues through the rain spotted window of my car. I sat quietly in my car reflecting on the year before while hoping that the rain would let up.

The gentle breeze kept the flags furling.

Eventually it turned to a light drizzle so I grabbed my camera, hopped out and began to photograph the flags.  Capturing the flags, so to speak, was a challenge. There were so many. A gentle breeze furled and unfurled the Star Spangled banners as a photographed. I pretty well had the cemetery to myself, except for a handful of people who had come early to set up for the ceremony that followed.

I walked through the forest of flags, not having to say a word to anyone, just me, my camera and, I felt, my Dad.  The time was a welcome break from the usual Memorial Day madness and just what I needed to personally honor the day. Whatever you do this day, I hope you’ll find a way to personally give tribute to those you love who may have given their lives or served time in our armed forces.

Christmas Card Photos Create Future Memories of Past Holidays

I had not planned to write a Christmas piece. But when I came across this photograph while working on my own Christmas cards earlier this week, I changed my mind. I intended to insert the photo into one of my brother’s Christmas cards but missed it in my haste to mail the cards.

Memories came rushing back as I was looking at this photo the other evening after discovering that I had failed to enclose it into the card.  I had just taken a family portrait last week for a client prompting me to think about the importance of our own annual Christmas card photo.  This was an annual event when I was growing up from my very first Christmas.

The annual Chistmas card family photo.
The annual Christmas card family photo.

This photo is more than just my parents’ Christmas card photo that year. Many memories are bound within the borders of this one image.  For instance, the photo was taken in my parents home. That door behind us led to the office of the motel co-owned and operated by my parents with my aunt and uncle.  I spent the first 16 years of my life living in at a motel. I never gave a thought to the fact that other kids didn’t live in a place that had ten guest rooms and a black top courtyard where my brother and I and my best friend from across the street played baseball games, held parades and rode around bikes round and round the evergreen tree that grew in a center planter.

The green satin dress that I’m wearing was made by my Aunt Marie, an excellent seamstress as well as cook.  I wore it in the wedding for a young Japanese couple–Aikio an Sojii–who were exchange students at the local community college and who were married in the Washington Avenue Methodist Church in town. I, along with my friend, Dru, were the candle-lighters.

The older of my two brothers, Richard, standing by my mother, was the ring bearer to Dru’s sister’s flower girl.  The suit and bow tie he wears was what he wore for the wedding too, maybe minus the white socks. This photo also shows how much my brother’s son resembles him. I have seen that similar look in my nephew.

The toddler on my mother’s lap is my younger brother, Brad. On the reverse of the actual photo, my mother had written: “Leon Crooks family – 12/64.” Brad was nine months old. My Dad took him into the studio and made a New Year’s baby picture of him wearing only a big smile a diaper and holding a bell. I am reminded how much my youngest son looked like him when he was that age.  The picture is still one of my favorites and I have a small wallet-sized print of it on display in my home.

My youngest brother is the New Year's baby in this studio portrait made in 1964.
My youngest brother is the New Year’s baby in this studio portrait made in 1964.

That rocking chair my mother is seated in was her Mother’s Day gift.  We had put a big yellow bow and ribbon on it, I remember, and surprised her with it after church that day. But when we came home, we learned that our prize-winning white Persian cat, Prince, who had one blue eye and one brown, had been run over and killed by a car.  It turned out that Prince was deaf, a defect often found in Persian cats with eyes of different color. I will never forget that Mother’s Day. I suspect my Mom didn’t either.

The print hanging on the wall behind my mother is one my Dad took of me sitting in Swope Park in Kansas City when I was four years old.  He entered and earned a merit with it in competition in his professional photographer’s association. I still own that print.

The big television behind us was a popular model at the time made by the now defunct RCA company. Besides the ‘big screen’ television, it housed a stereo turntable on one end with the control panel hidden on the other. No one makes anything like these electronic dinosaurs anymore.

And I couldn’t overlook the fashion statement of my Mom and Dad’s clothing. Although her fashion budget was tight and limited, my Mom always looked stylish.  I can’t see enough detail in the dress she’s wearing here to know for certain, but I bet she had purchased it at either Stephen’s Women’s Wear, the ‘upscale’ women’s clothing store in my hometown at the time, or Lane’s, which occupied a big retail space across the street from my Dad’s studio downtown on Main Street.

My Dad, of course, is wearing one of his signature bow ties.  My brother’s bow tie is undoubtedly a clip on, but my Dad wore nothing but the real deal.  When he passed away two years ago, those of us from the family attending his funeral, including myself, decided to each wear one of his bow ties as a nod to his trademark. Unfortunately, he had never taught any of us how to tie a bow tie. We had to find someone to show us how to execute the bow tie knot just hours before his service. Fortunately, one of my family’s lifelong friends, Pete Hughes, came to our rescue. I now can tie one on with the best of them. Also note the handkerchief nicely folded and peeking from his coat pocket. How often do you see that today?

Finally, since my Dad is in the photo, he obviously wasn’t the one tripping the shutter for this picture. I am certain that he had placed the camera on a tripod and had asked my aunt Marie, a pretty good amateur photographer, to press the shutter for him. Marie was often recruited for this task.

Your annual Christmas card photo may appear to be merely an image, but the picture truly is, to coin an old, time-worn phrase, ‘worth a thousand words.’ I’ve written nearly a thousand words here inspired by this singular photo when I had not planned to write anything this Christmas holiday. The photo unexpectedly stirred memories of wonderful times with my family.  And that, is a gift in itself. My wish for you is that you too will create future memories with a family photo of your own this holiday season.

 

A Recipe to Remember Made with Pecans and Love

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday this week by gathering with family and friends around tables set for a meal full of family favorites and traditional foods. The menu typically includes a turkey, cranberries and pie. The pie, considered to be the most traditional American dessert,  is usually pumpkin, apple or pecan.

My mother was the principal pie maker at our house: banana cream, lemon meringue, cherry, apple, rhubarb, pecan and, of course, pumpkin at Thanksgiving. When my mother’s dementia became so advanced that she could no longer live at home with my father, she moved to a care home. That left my father at home alone and without her there, he became the pie maker.  I remembered this the other day when I pulled out a package of pecans to chop and add to a batch of pumpkin pancakes.

My Dad didn't know I'd caught him taking a taste of the filling he'd just stirred up.
My Dad didn’t know I’d caught him taking a taste of the filling he’d just stirred up.

My Dad loved to stop on the drive between my hometown and a neighboring town to pick up bags of pecans, freshly picked from the nearby grove. He’d freeze the shelled nuts in plastic storage bags for later keeping out just enough for the pies that he planned to make for Thanksgiving.  I was home one year when he was baking his pecan pies for the upcoming holiday dinner.

“You don’t know how to make a pecan pie?” he said surprised when I admitted that I had never made one.  “Oh, it’s easy,” he said confidently.

He assembled his ingredients from the shelves in my parents small kitchen–corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and of course the pecans. One by one he poured each amount into plastic measuring cups then stirred the filling together in the large green Pyrex mixing bowl. He took the two pie shells that I had bought at the store earlier out of their packages and set them next to the bowl of filling.

With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.
With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.

My mother always made her crusts from scratch. She wouldn’t have approved of the pre-made crusts. Her crusts were light and flaky because, as she explained, she avoided handling the dough as much as possible. As a kid, I watched many times as she gathered the crumbly flour and shortening mixture into a small ball wetting it lightly with tablespoons of water so that it would adhere. She’d lift it carefully onto the big wooden cutting board and gently pass her red-handled rolling-pin over and over it until she had flattened it into a circle. Then again, ever so gingerly, she eased it into the waiting glass pie pan that had been greased so it wouldn’t stick when baked.pie-man015

For my Dad, the store-bought crusts were fine. Easier and less mess, he thought. And they came with their own aluminum foil pans which my Dad thought were great.  I found this was funny given how much he took pride in his pies.

After scooping the soupy butterscotch-colored filling into the pie crusts he began putting on the final touches.  One by one, my Dad delicately laid pecan after pecan around the perimeter of the pie top with his thick, aged fingers, until the entire pie was covered with floating pecans. He placed each piece precisely and with love. Now to transfer the unbaked pies onto the cookie sheets, being careful not to slop any of the contents in the process. Mindfully, my Dad slid each sheet into the heated oven.

The last step--transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.
The last step–transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.

“See, simple,” my Dad said once the pies were safely on the oven rack.  It was a pie-baking lesson I’ve never forgotten. This was more than simple; this was precious time spent with my Dad, in the last years of his life, creating a fond memory that I now think of gratefully especially as Thanksgiving approaches.

I hope that as you sit down with your family and friends that you too will recall memories like my own to bring you joy, laughter, tears, love and most of all gratitude.

My Dad's pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was made with love.
My Dad’s pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was handmade with love.

 

Easter in Brussels

My heart has been with the people of Brussels this week after the tragic act of terrorism that occurred there on Tuesday.  That beautiful small city of 177,000 will always be special to me because it was the place that introduced me to Europe. I first travelled there in 1987 to visit my friend and colleague Diane from TIME who had moved there to work.

The window of Neuhaus Chocolates was brimming with tempting and tasty treats for Easter.
The window of Neuhaus Chocolates was brimming with tempting and tasty treats for Easter.

I especially think of that first trip this time of year because I spent Easter that year in Brussels. And the memories I have of it are wonderful. Some of the best French food I’ve ever eaten was in Brussels; the chocolate was tastier than any other; the famous ‘gaufres’ or waffles were warm,crisp and yummy and the ‘pommes frites,’served in a paper cone topped with a dollop of mayonnaise still makes my mouth water. Beyond the food, the city itself was bright, delightful, charming, rich in history and architecture and very manageable for a first time visitor to Europe.

I keep journals whenever I travel and thought I’d share with you the page I wrote about that Easter in Brussels.  Hope you enjoy it.

The Guild Houses lining Brussel's Grand Place gleam in the night lights.
The Guild Houses lining Brussel’s Grand Place gleam in the night lights.

“Easter. What a way to spend the holiday–sightseeing in Brussels. First we’re off to the Grand Place to see the Sunday morning bird fair. Little birds of all sorts in cages being sold to the people right there in the square. Some of the birds were beautiful canaries of beautiful peach and white, or yellow and red.

Vendors brought their little birds to the Bird Market in the Grand Place.
Vendors brought their little birds to the Bird Market in the Grand Place.

When it began to rain, we took cover in a nearby cafe where we had Belgian waffles covered with strawberries. They were like the kind that I remembered eating at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964.

Afterwards, we strolled back to the Grand Place and I rubbed the leg of the statue of Everard t Serclaes, a local hero. Everyone rubs the statue for good luck so his leg and arm are well polished and shiny.

We then went to see the antique fair at the Grand Sablon. By the time we arrived, about noon, the dealers were starting to fold away their tents. We walked through but most of the things were too expensive for me to buy.

Candles lit by the faithful on Easter cast a glow on the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon.
Candles lit by the faithful on Easter cast a glow on the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon.

We left the market and went inside a church there in the Grand Sablon the Eglise Notre-Dame du Grand Sablon. This ‘chapel’ was built by the archers who practiced in this area when it was a sandy marsh. The stained glass was so beautiful and rich in color. The ceilings were vaulted and so high.  Buried in the church is the Taxis family–the family who founded the first private postal system and about whom Diane had read in the Thomas Pynchon book, “The Crying Lot of 49.” 

From the church, we crossed the street and walked through the Petite Sablon, a small but pretty park surround by a fence with statuary of the different Guilds placed all along the top. The tulips were just beginning to bloom here.

Walking around Brussels on Easter, I came upon these two young girls with their chocolate Easter eggs.
Walking around Brussels on Easter, I came upon these two young girls with their chocolate Easter eggs.

We walked up the steps and down the street from the Petite Sablon to the Palais de Justice–the favorite Belgian building of Freud and Hitler. There’s a good view of Brussels from the Palais de Justice. You can even see the Atomium that lies just outside the city. On the way, I spotted a family out for Easter. The two girls were carrying two large chocolate Easter eggs. Bigger eggs than I’ve ever seen so I took a picture of them.

The tulips in the park of the Petite Sablon were just blooming when I first visited Brussels.
The tulips in the park of the Petite Sablon were just blooming when I first visited Brussels.

Before heading back to the apartment, we stopped at a cafe on Avenue Louise and had a cafe and chocolate chaud. The restaurants always give you a little piece of chocolate with every cup of caffe or tea and it’s usually very good. They also put on the saucer two little cubes of ‘sucre.’

We rode the tram back to Diane’s. I went in and took a nap. It had been a wonderful Easter.”

Maybe my European Easter memoir will bring a memories of your own to mind and that one day, you have the chance, as I did, to visit this beautiful Belgian city. If you do, take a moment to remember those who innocently died in the attacks last week.

In keeping with local tradition, I rub the arm and leg of the monument of Everard t Serclaes in Brussel's Grand Place for good luck.
In keeping with local tradition, I rub the arm and leg of the monument of Everard t Serclaes in Brussel’s Grand Place for good luck.

The Last Supper

Everyone who celebrates Easter has their own holiday memories. It may be waking up early to attend a sunrise service at their church. Or hopping out of bed to find the multi-colored candy eggs that the Easter bunny has hidden. Or smelling the sweet fragrance of an Easter lily and winding up with a bright yellow nose from the plant’s powdery stamens. (Studies tell us that smells are our strongest memory associations).  As a child, my family did all of these things to celebrate Easter. But for me, some of my happiest and most vivid memories of the holiday were the family ‘suppers’ that we all sat down to after the morning church service.

Still in our pajamas, my brothers and I look through the goodies in our baskets on Easter morning.
Still in our pajamas, my brothers and I look through the goodies in our baskets on Easter morning.

For my mother, or my aunt, who took generally took turns preparing the big noon-time holiday meal, Easter started early. Before heading off to church, which began at 9 a.m., they would be in the kitchen, putting the ham into the oven so that it would be cooked by the time we returned.  The new potatoes that would be stirred into the pot with the creamy white sauce and added to the early spring peas, would be boiled.

My father shows off the new potatoes he just dug up  in his garden.
My father shows off the new potatoes he just dug up in his garden.

The packaged ‘brown and serve’ dinner rolls would be placed into a shallow baking dish and covered so that they could be popped into the oven for  a few minutes just before supper.  Some of the eggs that we had dyed a day or two before would be peeled, sliced in half and made into the deliciously simple deviled eggs that always seemed to vanish almost before we sat down at the table. And the table, that had been covered with the soft green-colored damask tablecloth with the protective pads beneath, would be set with my mother’s best china, sterling silver and often the dark green water goblets.  Sometime the entire setting would be accented with a centerpiece of whatever was flowering in the garden, usually daffodils. I would contribute by decorating white paper napkins with Easter bunnies and eggs drawn in crayons.

There were usually eight of us at the table, including my parents, my brothers, and my two aunts and uncles.  I later learned from one of other aunts that this coming together for a meal after church had long been a tradition carried out by my mother’s family.  

My mother, holding guitar, with her parents and sisters and brothers pose for photo on their porch.
My mother, holding guitar, with her parents and sisters and brothers pose for photo on their porch.

My mother came from a large family, as did my father, and, like my father, grew up on a farm during the Depression. I had always imagined her family as struggling to survive, like so many during the era. I later learned from my aunt that despite the hard times, there was always plenty of food on Sundays.  I was surprised to hear that my Grandmother, who lived with her husband and, at the time, with her seven children and her mother- and father-in-law, would often invite people from their church to supper afterwards. Indeed, they had difficulties, but they had chickens and cows and fruit and nut trees, vegetables in the garden and wild plants from the woods that they could eat. I guess that my Grandmother thought they were more fortunate than other families so on Sundays, she would set as many as 12 extra places at the table for supper. I think they must have had a very large table, or perhaps the children ate elsewhere.  But according to my aunt, there was plenty of food to go share.  It was a happy memory that my aunt carried with her all the 90 years of her life and fortunately, passed along to me.

With my aunts and uncles, my family sit down together for a Sunday dinner.
With my aunts and uncles, my family sit down together for a Sunday dinner.

I don’t know whether my mother enjoyed making those large Easter dinners, or getting up early so that the meal would be ready by the time everyone assembled around the table, but I know that she enjoyed our sitting down together to share the holiday meal. The meal wouldn’t begin until someone had said the blessing, usually my father or my Uncle Joe who was particularly eloquent. I remember the first thing that I would reach for was one of those deviled eggs. Our plates would be carefully handed to whomever sat closest to the sliced ham, now steaming warm,  so that it could be lifted off the platter with the big sterling silver fork. I smeared my hot roll (the second thing that I reached for) with butter and grape jelly before biting into the soft, white bread.

The conversation would be grown-up and continuous. My younger brother (I only had one at the time)and I could contribute but we were too busy eating. I can’t remember what they talked about, but the symphony of their loving voices–my uncle’s deep bass, my aunt’s Swedish lilt, my other uncle’s mumble and my other aunt’s melodic alto–was music to me. I forgot that my new frilly, fancy dress or black patent leather shoes that my mother insisted I wear to church scratched my legs or pinched my feet. I was surrounded by those I loved and who loved me all partaking together a simple, but sumptuous meal, that would finish with the wonderful pineapple upside down cake made from scratch by one of my two aunts.  Ah, what could be better.

Last Easter, my family gathered once more for a final holiday meal at my parents' home.
Last Easter, my family gathered once more for a final holiday meal at my parents’ home.

Last Easter we repeated this tradition at my father’s home one last time. My father had passed away the week prior.  His funeral took place on Good Friday. I was staying, with my sons and my husband, in his home still surrounded by his things he and my mother had so lovingly collected together over the years. Our family portraits still hung on the wall, including the one of me taken in the studio many Easters ago when I was child. (You can read about that in my Easter post from March 2013: https://cherylcrooksphotography.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/in-my-easter-bonnet/) Despite the sad events of the previous few days, I felt we must have one last supper to celebrate Easter in my father’s house, if nothing else but to honor the memory of both my parents and the families from which they came. Not everyone from the family who attended my Dad’s service was still in town. Two of my sons had to leave shortly after his funeral and my brothers couldn’t be there. But my husband, my cousins, nephews and nieces that were present was enough for me.  It was family, gathered once more around the table. I had set it for one final time, with my mother’s good china on top of one of her beautiful tablecloths and placed flowers and candles in the center.

We didn’t have the ham, nor the creamed peas or even the pineapple upside down cake. In fact, the menu leaned more towards the brunch. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were surrounded once again by family who shared a common history and love for those who had come before us and whose memory would live on long after us. While it was an Easter saddened by the recent passing of my father–the last of his generation– it was also a beautiful Easter.

 

 

Giving Thanks for the Family Photo

A commercial currently airing on television here tells you, the viewer, several things you need to do to in life.  Among the list, the woman announcer says: “Take pictures.  Lots of them.  In 20 years you’ll be glad you did.”

I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, one of the pictures I’m glad now I have is one that we took not 20 years ago but only five years back on Thanksgiving Day.  It was the last big Thanksgiving that I and my family spent with my relatives in my hometown.  Like many Americans, on that day, we made the journey home, halfway across the county, to be with them all for just a few days.  (The Thanksgiving holiday is the busiest travel time in the United States, both on the ground and in the air.  If you don’t believe me, just drop in at any airport a day or two before.)

The first of the family heed the call to come for a picture.
The first of the family heed the call to come for a picture.

Remember the old song “Over the River and Through the Wood“?  Written in 1844, the words were taken from a Thanksgiving Day poem penned by Lydia Maria Child.  Later, it was set to music by an unknown composer and has since become an American holiday classic tune that schoolchildren still learn.  Amazingly, her words still describe the feeling of anticipation as well as the travails of travelling to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving Day dinner. Even the last line: ‘Hurra, for the pumpkin pie!” remains astonishingly accurate as pumpkin pie is a staple on the holiday dinner menu.

In our case, the trip to Grandmother’s house was not made via horse-drawn sleigh, as Child wrote.  Our update version involved a 90-minute drive to the airport, a three-hour flight with a 90 minute to two-hour lay-over, followed by another 90-minute drive once we landed at our destination.  But “we seem(ed) to go, extremely slow,” as one of poem’s stanzas read. Despite the hassles of modern-day air travel, it was a trek I would repeat, and did repeat for many years, just like millions of other Americans.

Family members help with chairs to seat my parents and my uncle.
Family members help with chairs to seat my parents and my uncle.

What made this particular Thanksgiving Day so special from others was that it came just after my father’s 90th birthday, which we also celebrated then.  We would later learn that it also would be the last Thanksgiving at which both of my parents and my Dad’s youngest brother, Jiggs, would have with all of us who came that day. Not all of the members of our extensive family were able to attend the day’s dinner, but those of us who did would agree that it was a Thanksgiving they will long remember.

The day was bright and brisk. Most of the leaves had fallen and the grass was starting to turn brown. But winter had not yet arrived.  It was that awkward in-between seasons time that makes packing difficult because you never know exactly what you might need.  On this Thanksgiving, sweaters and jackets were a good idea whenever you went outdoors. With the favorable weather, someone–probably me but I don’t remember–suggested that we take a family picture before dinner.

At least the oldest generation of the family is finally in place. Now, to just get everyone else lined up.
At least the oldest generation of the family is finally in place. Now, to just get everyone else lined up.

Although the Crooks family is better than most when it comes to cooperating for family photographs, rounding everyone up was a bit of a challenge. Some of our group was at my brother’s home still cleaning up from the brunch we had earlier in the day. Some had already walked down to my cousin’s house, on the corner a block away, to start dinner or to check on the turkey that had already been seasoned and placed in the oven. My uncle had gone back to his own house around the block to watch the football games that had already begun on television. And my nephew, who had to split his holiday between his Dad’s house and his Mother’s home 60 miles away, had to leave.

The timing wasn’t the best for a family portrait. Light-wise it was terrible as it was nearly noon. Much too bright and early for a good quality portrait with light that would flatter everyone. But it was Thanksgiving.

One final check to make sure that everyone is present and ready.
One Final Check

We directed everyone to assemble on the front steps of my brother’s home. After few adjustments of getting everyone arranged, we were ready. Rather than setting a timer and running and jumping into place, my cousin-in-law’s father, who had joined us that day, was to be the trigger release man. I gave him some quick instructions, showed him the button to push without moving the camera, and hoped for the best.  The results were what you see here. It’s just a ‘snapshot’ but it’s full of family dynamics.

There’s my mother sitting front and center trying to look her best. The dementia hadn’t yet taken her completely away. It would be the last photo we’d have like this before she had to move into the assisted care facility after my father broke his hip the following New Year’s Eve.  My Uncle Jiggs, my Dad’s youngest brother is seated there to her right. Always the jokester of the family, he’s got that big grin on his face. You just know he’s up to no good. Sitting on the other side of my Mom is my Dad. He’s still very vital in this photo. His feet and hands placed just as he would have directed a subject if he had been taking one of his professional family group portraits. My Dad always smiled whenever someone took his picture. I think he believed that that’s how he wanted to be remembered, with a smile on his face.

The final result of our effort--a family gathered together for one last picture.
The final result of our effort–a family gathered together for one last picture.

The rest of our motley crew pictured here are cousins and their children, all nearly the same age. When my three young sons were growing up, I made it a point to haul them back to Kansas with me as often as I could so that they would know their cousins who lived there. It paid off. Today, this third generation, not all of whom are pictured here by any means, remain ‘relatively’ close and stay in touch with each other.  Of course, social media outlets have helped make that easier and even more possible.

True, we’re missing family members from this photo but it remains priceless because of the wonderful memories it brings back for me of that day and of the fun of all being together. Those days are rare and have become even more rare over time. Sometimes, there are no second chances, as is the case with this Thanksgiving family picture. This was the last time we would get a photo with all of us and the three of them. Within the next four short years, they all would be gone. Even my cousin’s father who clicked the shutter for me just passed away this month.

We all play it up for one last picture.  A true classic.
We all play it up for one last picture. A true classic.

With both my parents and my uncle now gone, the picture is impossible to duplicate. It is exactly why photographs l become so precious over time. It is why, as the television commercial puts it: “In 20 years, you’ll be glad you did.” It’s only been five years since we made this family photo, and I think all of us in it are very glad we did.

If your family is together for Thanksgiving dinner this year, take time out, above the any protests of some less photo-enthusiastic relatives, to record the occasion with a group photo. Whether you’ve engaged a professional photographer like myself or not, that photograph will, in 20 years or less, become a priceless visual memory of your single day together.

 

Small Town Salutes American Vets

In small towns all across the United States, Americans will be celebrating our Veterans’ Day holiday on Tuesday, November 11.  For schoolchildren, it will be mean a day off from classes. For federal employees it will be day off from work.  Mail doesn’t move. Banks are closed but the stock markets are open. And sadly, major retailers have turned the day into one of the major shopping sale days of the year. I think that’s hardly what President Woodrow Wilson, who first proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, or President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, expanded the holiday as a day to honor all military veterans, had in mind when they made the holiday an official American observance.

American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.
American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.

But in small towns all across the United States, the original intention of the holiday–to celebrate and recognize all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces–is carried out in parades, ceremonies, flag-flying, grave decorating, speeches, band concerts, patriotic performances and special dinners for veterans.  In my small, hometown of Parsons, KS., (population 10,164), the local Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, hosts a simple, but moving program for anyone who wants to attend.  I happened to be visiting my father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, on two recent Veterans’ Days–in 2011 and 2013–and accompanied him to the program.  At the time, I didn’t know that the 2013 program would be his last.  Now, the memories and photographs I took on that day, hold even more significance for me.

The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 55 a day.  Of the 16 million who served in World War II, only a little more than a million survive. My Dad was among a handful of them in attendance at the 2013 VFW ceremony. Those who were there that day, proudly rose to their feet when the VFW’s color guard strode in with the American flag.  I was surprised at how touched I was to watch some of these old soldiers and sailors struggle to push themselves up from their chairs to stand and salute the flag.  I could tell that my own father was saddened that he could not join them because he was seated in a wheelchair and not strong enough at the time to stand up.  But he removed his cap and placed his hand over his heart as the flag passed by.  And again, when each branch of the military’s own flag was introduced and carried into the room, the veterans, young and old representing that branch, proudly arose to be recognized by the others in the audience.

Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2013. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.
Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2011. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.

The program was appropriately patriotic but not war-mongering.  No one among these assembled veterans, I think was a fan of war.  I know my own Dad certainly wasn’t. He felt great concern for the safety of the young troops serving in our country’s current conflicts.  He believed that no one should have to experience what they, as veterans, had to endure. Interestingly, at the reunions I attended with my father for his Army outfit, the young soldiers who came to meet their predecessors expressed the opinion that my Dad’s generation went through much more than they, as modern-day soldiers, have ever had to face, even if deployed overseas.

My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.

At the Parsons program, the local post commander, dressed in full military uniform introduced the day’s speaker, neither of whom I really remember. Their speeches came nowhere close to being as stirring as sitting and talking and acknowledging the veteran’s who were in the room that day.  The local high school band played a few selections, a little off-pitch, of familiar patriotic music before and during the program.  They struck up Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” by as everyone filed out to the parking lot outside for the twenty-one gun salute and the playing of the plaintive tune, ‘Taps.’

The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.
The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.

On both the Veterans’ Days when I was present, the red, white and blue of the American flags flying on the poles lining the gravel lot, flapped in the wind and stood out dramatically against the bright blue of the sky. Many of the flags flying that day at the post had been donated by local families who had received them upon their own veteran’s death.  I now own one of  those flags.  And while I haven’t yet the heart to part with it, I think that it may one day fly with those flags in a private salute to my Dad who, during his own 92-year lifetime, saluted so many others.

My Dad's favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad’s favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran on the front side, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.

 

Having a Blast in the Big Apple

My memories of the Fourth of July are mostly of awakening to the sounds of firecrackers popping off somewhere in the small town in Kansas where I grew up.  As soon as I could get myself dressed, I’d be out there too with my little brothers lighting a string of Black Cats, setting off sticks of sparklers, or watching a jet black pellet, sold as a ‘snake’  grow into a delicate twisting cylinder of carbon ash when a match was held to it.   But three years ago, I was treated to a different kind of Fourth of July, an aerial spectacular staged in the largest city in the U.S.–Fourth of July New York City style.

I arrived in the city with my husband early that morning on a flight from London where we had been visiting friends.  My cousins, Terry and John, who live in Manhattan, asked us to join them for their holiday celebration that evening if we weren’t too jet-lagged.  One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to experience how other parts of the country or the world celebrate holidays.  So when my cousins extended their invitation,  I was going to be there. By flying in the early, we could go my son’s apartment, shower and clean up and then grab a nap in order to be awake for the festivities that night. Falling asleep wasn’t hard, as neither of us had dozed much on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic.  Waking up in time to go to Terry and John’s was harder.

Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.
Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.

But by early evening, I was ready to party. We hopped a cab across town to my cousins’ apartment building in Chelsea. They had recently moved from the first floor to the tenth floor. One side of their three bedroom apartment faced towards the Hudson River, where the fireworks show was to be that year. Macy’s, the department store that sponsors the big event, rotates the show every other year between the East River and the Hudson River, so as to give New Yorkers living on both sides of the island a fair chance to see it.  Terry and John’s place couldn’t have been a more perfect place from which to watch that year’s extravaganza.

The colors of the sunset itself against New York's skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.
The colors of the sunset itself against New York’s skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.

Folding deck chair filled their little balcony so everyone could sit for the show. At one end of the balcony, John was manning the grill where hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling hot.  This was a backyard barbecue, Manhattan style. Terry, who’s a great cook, had all the trimmings ready as well as some tasty side dishes and a dessert just in case you got hungry later. When you stepped in off the balcony to ‘dress’ your dog or burger, you could still catch the pyrotechnic spectacle being broadcast live on the living room’s big screen television. That option also included live performances by various entertainers that took place on Liberty Island before and during the big show.

From the balcony, we could see a steady stream of people heading down towards the river hoping to stake out a good observation point.  Their arms were loaded with picnic baskets, bags of food, folding chairs and ice chests as if they were camping there for a week.  Thousands of excited kids and their parents scurried down the streets, looking like, from our vantage point high above them, little ants in one of those clear plastic ant houses.

 

Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.
Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.

Excitement mounted as darkness descended over the city’s skyline. The first of the big fireworks went trailing high into the sky and at its pinnacle burst into sparkles of color.  Our little party all ‘oohed’  together as people always seem to do when watching fireworks en masse.  Five or six barges had been anchored in the middle of the river and loaded with nearly 30-minutes worth of sky rockets, giant cones and Roman candles that sped high over the skyline when ignited before exploding into bright, chrysanthemum-like bouquets against the black sky.  Each subsequent explosion seemed bigger and better than the last and elicited even grander expressions of delight from our balcony full of celebrants.  I couldn’t imagine anyone not being thrilled by this cosmopolitan Independence Day display.

For me, it was a very different venue from anywhere I had been.  I had watched fireworks erupt over the empty ball field in my home town, seen the shows spread out all over Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley from a friend’s hillside backyard and watched the late night pyrotechnics over Bellingham’s bay. Now I experienced the Fourth set against a backdrop of skyscrapers silhouetted by the bursting embers of light that drifted slowly down into the Hudson.

The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.
The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.

I photographed what I could, steadying my camera on the balcony railing and shooting through the fine mesh protective screen that enclosed my cousin’s balcony. It wasn’t the best of shooting conditions but it was definitely the best of evenings.  When it was over, we cheered and watched as exuberant spectators below headed home or joined friends to continue the festivities elsewhere. The mood was definitely as bombastic as the show we had just witnessed.  This was a Fourth of July that I have cataloged as one of  my most memorable.  For what could be better than celebrating our national holiday with family, friends and fireworks in such a great city and setting?

Preserve and Protect Your Holiday Photos

One day this past week, I pulled out the drawer where I keep our family videos of Christmases past.  I shoved one into the VCR (fortunately we have a VCR drive on our DVD machine) and turned it on. The one I chose to watch was nearly 20 years ago. It was in remarkably good condition. My sons were small and full of glee over the holiday preparations.

Photos of my sons when they were small at Christmas are among my most precious photos.  Shown here with their Grandmother, I can only imagine the sticky hands they had after gtnawing on those candy canes.
Photos of my sons when they were small at Christmas are among my most precious photos. Shown here with their Grandmother, I can only imagine the sticky hands they had after gnawing on those candy canes.

My parents visited my family that year and I have video of them handing out the gifts they had packed into their suitcase to three excited little boys.  My mother-in-law, who was still living then, was there too at our caroling party cuddling my youngest in her arms. And my cousin’s son, who was like a big brother to my sons and who is no longer living, made an appearance to help my husband set up the toy train.  I was more captivated by our homemade video than any movie I’ve seen all year. I’ll bet many of you are taking photos and videos of your family and this year’s holiday festivities. Recording these visual memories takes many forms these days,–with cameras, phones, tablets or who knows what else.  I still chuckle whenever I see someone holding up a tablet to capture an image. But I must confess, the quality of some of these devices is pretty amazing. However, what happens to all those pictures and videos once they have been stored on the device’s memory card? Is  your memory  permanent or does it become lost somewhere in your personal cyberspace? Will anyone else years from now be able to retrieve it should they want to see how your family celebrated the holidays?

My family gathered at the long table in my aunt and uncle's basement to have our Christmas dinner together.
My family gathered at the long table in my aunt and uncle’s basement to have our Christmas dinner together.

The practice of taking ‘snapshots’ came into popularity during the early 1900s when Kodak introduced its first Brownie camera which sold for $1.  A roll of film was 15 cents. For the first time, according to Kodak history, “the hobby of photography was within the financial reach of virtually everyone.” As wages rose during the 1920s, snapshot photography became more and more part of American daily life.  Smaller cameras and better film allowed people to capture a life that was full of motion.   By the 1950s,  snapshots became even easier to take when Kodak’s first plastic Brownie camera came onto the market. These were even smaller versions of Kodak’s original box cameras and far easier to tote along to parties, on vacations or to keep handy around the house.

My first camera was a Brownie like this one.  The Brownie made holiday picture-taking easy.
My first camera was a Brownie like this one. The Brownie made holiday picture-taking easy.

The Brownie Bullet was a cube-shaped camera made of molded Bakelite plastic with a simple lens and shutter release whose dimensions were just a little larger than the 127 sized roll film loaded inside. This was my very first camera. Mine was the Brownie Holiday model. I still have it and all of the nearly square format black and white snapshots that I took with it. My earliest photos are now stored in what preceded today’s ‘memory card’–a photo album. I can pull it off the shelf, turn through the pages and re-live those days of my childhood through the photos affixed there to the page with little black paper corners.

One of my earliest photos, probably taken with my Brownie Starflash camera, was of my Dad carving the turkey at the holiday dinner.
One of my earliest photos, probably taken with my Brownie Starflash camera, was of my Dad carving the turkey at the holiday dinner.

Fast forward to today. Film has almost disappeared although some is still available. Cameras have taken new forms, some not even resembling a ‘traditional’ camera. Photo albums are rapidly being replaced by on-line versions where thousands of images can be simply dumped or neatly arranged and viewed on TVs, computer screens, phones or whatever. But in 20, 30, 40 years and beyond, will you, your progeny or historians be able to access these images so that you or they can get a glimpse of how we lived our lives and celebrated holidays together? It’s a question that I constantly ask myself and my studio clients. I suggest to all my friends and professional clients that they make prints of their personal pictures, especially the ones that they love the most. I also strongly urge everyone to download your images onto a back-up external hard drive and/or CD. Since starting to shoot digitally, I make two copies of both my personal and professional images on archival quality CDs. Of course, CDs no longer guarantee that you’ll have access to them in the future. Some Apple computer products, for example,  no longer come with CD drives.

This  shapshot of my parents with my aunts and uncles opening their Christmas was taken in the late 1940s and offers a priceless glimpse into my family's holiday celebration 'pre-me'.
This snapshot of my parents with my aunts and uncles opening their Christmas gifts was taken in the late 1940s and offers a priceless glimpse into my family’s holiday celebration ‘pre-me’.

At least with printed copies of your pictures you’ll have them later. I have never understood professional photographers, or amateur ones for that matter, who leave their images only in digital format. I have never sold my professional images only in that format, even though I’ve had plenty of requests to do so, because I think it’s a disservice to both my client and my work. It’s the same for your personal snapshots and your videos as well. In some ways, it’s even more important that you make prints of those images captured during the holidays and at other special times of the year because only you have them. They’re your personal memories recorded to recall visually the wonderful times you shared with family and friends.

My New Year’s wish is for you to preserve and protect your personal photos and videos. Please, make a resolution to print those images as well as download them. Put them in an album or shoe box or wherever it is you like to keep your most valuable documents so that years from now you too can look back and fondly remember these holidays.

Seasons Greetings

The first greeting card of the season arrived in the mail the other day–yes, the mail, the kind that still requires a  postage stamp and a short walk out to the mailbox in below-freezing temperatures to retrieve.  The sending and receiving of Christmas cards is a holiday ritual that I look forward to.  I still personally send and receive a goodly number of them–last year I mailed off nearly 100. I count myself fortunate that I know that many people to whom I would like to send greetings of the season.

In recent years, I’ve received more ‘e-cards’ but there is something wonderful about ripping open the paper envelope, sliding out the card and holding in your hand a paper card from someone you know even if you only hear from them by mail at this time of year.  The convenience of the Internet certainly has impacted the way we correspond with our friends and family.  It’s great to be able to sit down and chat via electronically on one of many of the modes of communication now available to us, just as I did this morning with my cousin in Los Angeles.  But for me, I still enjoy the old-fashioned Christmas card when it comes to wishing everyone a happy holiday.

One year, my Dad gathered the family in the studio for a Christmas card portrait.
One year, my Dad gathered the family in the studio for a Christmas card portrait. Don’t you love my hairstyle?

For the past two weeks, I’ve been busy in the studio designing, ordering and delivering holiday cards to my photography clients.  The cards feature the portraits I’ve taken of them either on the front cover or inside or both along with a personal message conveying their best wishes to their loved ones and friends.  It’s terrific fun to help them select just the right design for the photo they’ve chosen and pen a verse to say exactly what they want, if they haven’t already written it themselves.  And it’s even more rewarding to see how happy and pleased they are when I show them the finished product.  

My family has been creating Christmas cards for as long as I can remember.  Longer, in fact, as for my very first Christmas, my parents sent off a card with a photograph of me, cuddled in the arms of my beaming father with my beautiful mother next to him and the Christmas tree, trimmed in silver tinsel and shiny glass balls, behind us.

The year I was born, my parent' family and friends received this card at Christmas.
The year I was born, my parent’ family and friends received this card at Christmas.

In the photo, I look less than interested but I am so thrilled now to have this tangible Christmas memory, to be able to feel the thickness of the stiff-backed panel card and the embossed greeting and design on the front.  The names of my parents are also embossed onto the card but my name has been hand-printed in red, ball-point ink below it.  Maybe they didn’t anticipate including me in the picture when they ordered the card or maybe it was simply a printer’s mistake or limitation of the number of lines that could be included.  The photo itself is a ‘sepia-toned’ wallet that has been inserted and affixed in the pre-cut rounded-corner opening.  I have only one of these cards which found in a drawer my parents’ home during a visit there.  I cherish it as I would a priceless jewel, more in fact.

This card was printed on photographic paper by my dad in his studio. That's me and my brother, Richard, trying to guess what's in the packages.
This card was printed on photographic paper by my dad in his studio. That’s me and my brother, Richard, trying to guess what’s in the packages.

Throughout my childhood,  my brothers and I posed for the annual Christmas card photo.  Sometimes we included the family cat.  Sometimes we were wearing pajamas, other times our Sunday-best.  Sometimes we were placed at the piano or playing our instruments.  The year my youngest brother arrived, my aunt Marie made an oversized red flannel stocking into which my six-month-old brother was carefully stuffed while my other brother and I held it open. I know that there were years when I was less than excited about having to stand still while my dad, also a fine professional photographer, took the picture. But now,  I am so grateful that he and my mother insisted.

In the days when black and white was the only option, Dad had to print the Christmas card pictures himself on photographic paper, many of which doesn’t exist any more.  These photos would then be inserted into the card, just as I still do for myself and clients today.  In some cases, he printed the entire card on photographic paper.  I don’t know how he found the time to do them  as the holidays was always busy enough just trying to fulfill customers’ orders.

When my younger brother was born, we stuffed him into a stocking for the annual Christmas photo
When my younger brother was born, we stuffed him into a stocking for the annual Christmas photo

With the advent of Kodak’s ‘slimline’ greeting cards, the actual production of the card became a little easier. We still had to take time out for my dad to shoot the photo, but it was far less work on the back-end for him to create it.  The task of addressing and stamping all those cards, and I’m sure there were plenty because I have a large, extended family, fell to my mom.

I will always treasure this card of my sons with my parents. I photographed them together during one of my parents’ last visits to my home.

I have carried on the tradition in my own family. My three sons long ago learned that it was better just to go along with the yearly photo session than to protest.  One of my personal favorites is of them standing on our front walk, with the snow flurries flying around them.  Another that I’ll treasure for as long as I live is the one I took of my sons with my parents during one of their last visits to my home.

I like to believe now that they are young men that they actually appreciate my efforts.  I am sure they will once they have families of their own. Because over the years, it’s all those pictures that help us to share with others the way we lived and the people we loved.  During the holiday season, I display the photo cards my parents made.  It keeps my family close to me now that my mother has passed away and my father lives far away.  And they remind me of  holidays past. So while we live in an exciting era of instantaneous, electronic communication, I continue this old-fashioned practice of sending a personal, paper greeting card to my family and friends.  Perhaps, one day, my cards will become holiday heirlooms too.

This is one of my family favorites. I made this photo of my sons during a pre-Christmas snowstorm.
This is one of my family favorites. I made this photo of my sons during a pre-Christmas snowstorm.