You may find it odd that I devote my Mother’s Day piece to someone else’s Mom. In fact, I could write about a lot of Mom’s I have known who have been big influences in my own life and never run out of material. But this time, I want to tell you a woman I met just last December when I photographed her and her family in my studio.
Her daughter from the San Francisco Bay area had set up a family studio portrait for when she and her 92-year-old mother would be in town visiting her sister. It was becoming more difficult for her mother to travel, the daughter explained, so she wanted me to create a portrait of them while she was still able to make the trip.
When they arrived at my studio, her ‘girls’ helped her in. She sometimes used a wheelchair, especially since one foot hurt, but on this day, she walked in on her own with a cane and some assistance from her daughters. She greeted me politely as she crossed the threshold with a warm smile and introduced herself as “Mary.”
Once inside, she slipped off her coat to reveal a bright, lipstick red glittery jersey top and jacket and black slacks that she was wearing. She and the girls had bought it, along with their own shimmery tops especially for our session. The color couldn’t have been a better choice for Mary. It complimented her own skin tones and the red-highlights in her hair. The glitter reflected a twinkle in her eye. I could tell that she felt quite special to be so dressed up.
Before heading into the camera study, I talked with her and the family, as I do with all of my portrait clients. Usually I meet clients prior to a photo session to plan our time together and to become acquainted before I photograph them. But it hadn’t been possible this time. Her daughters stepped into my little dressing room to straighten their hair, put on jewelry and check make-up. Meanwhile, Mary and I chatted.
I wanted to know a little bit about her, she belonged, after all, to one of the most fascinating and rapidly vanishing generations of our time. I told her that I once had family in the Bay Area who had moved there from the Midwest shortly before the World War II. I wondered if she had grown up in San Francisco.
And with that, she opened up. No, she hadn’t grown up in San Francisco. She was raised in a small town in Oklahoma. During the War, she moved to Washington D.C. “I had taken typing in school,” she said. “I was pretty good typist too. When War broke out, they needed people in Washington.
“I had taken a typing test and passed it. My Daddy told me that I should apply. That I had taken that class and could type and I should apply.” As she spoke, I could picture her, a young woman, having grown up in the Depression, probably somewhere in the Dust Bowl as most of Oklahoma was.
“So I did,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I was hired! Can you imagine that?” she asked. “Here I was just a young girl from Oklahoma and now I was going to live in Washington. I had never been outside of Oklahoma and here I was going to Washington!” I could hear in voice both wonder and pride, as if she had just received the news.
“Did you know anyone there?” I asked.
“No.” she said. “Only one other girl who was from Oklahoma too.”
It took two days by train to travel East to the nation’s capitol. What a ride it must have been, through country she had only read about in books. Once there, she found a room where her friend also lived. And then she started her new job working in one of the government’s many typing pools. As she told me her story, it was like we both landed back in time. Her face seemed brighter, her eyes sparkled and I’m sure she felt like the young woman again. I could see in her that Oklahoma girl, recently graduated from high school, leaving behind her parents and siblings, off to new experiences. Clearly, Mary was bit astonished by her youthful spirit. “Can you imagine that? a young girl like me, going off to Washington by herself,” she said again almost as if trying to convince herself that it had actually happened.
I agreed that it was a very bold and adventurous thing for her to have done, but it was wartime after all, and people of that era did many bold things that they never thought they would.
We moved into the camera study. I seated Mary in a chair, careful not to bump her sore foot. I arranged her in a way that would work for the pictures but that would also be comfortable for her as it would be difficult to shift her around during our session. She appeared relaxed and ready to start. I began by taking images of the entire family. I worked quickly not wanting Mary to tire. After finishing those images, her son-in-law departed, his part of the photo session completed. Her daughters went to change for some additional images of just the two of them with their Mom. Mary stayed put in the chair. It was just the two of us in the camera study.
“How about we do some just of you?” I suggested while we waited. I knew that the daughters also wanted a portrait of their mother alone.
She agreed. I asked her to lean against the arm of the chair. She did. Then the magic happened. Without any direction, Mary became a model before the camera re-positioning her hands, tilting her head (I may have asked her to do that), striking a pose that I imagined she either remembered from a time gone by or had seen once in a magazine. Years came off and back. Mary clearly was enjoying being the center of my camera’s attention as much as I was enjoying photographing her. Her smile broadened and once again I saw that twinkle in her eyes, the young woman from Oklahoma headed out on her own. Who did she have in head? Some of the ‘glamour girls’ from the 1940s? I mused. Or maybe just the younger version of herself.
When the session was over I asked if the girls and their mother were planning to go to dinner since they were all dressed so festively. They hadn’t planned on it, but now that I mentioned it, the daughters agreed it would be a good idea. Off they went.
Later, one of her daughters told me how much they all had enjoyed the experience. “You know, my Mom was so anxious about it,” she said. “and I really didn’t know how she would do. But she had a wonderful time.”
I was surprised to learn she had been so anxious but pleased that she at felt at ease with me. I had made a new friend in Mary. I felt she had shared with me some precious memories and allowed me to see her in another light. And I was grateful. Now, whenever I speak to her daughter on the phone, I always ask about her mother and to please relay my best. Our connection was brief, but it was a connection. I hope Mary had a Happy Mother’s Day.