Mother Mary Charms Me

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.

Mary came to my studio with her two daughters for a family portrait together.
Mary came to my studio with her two daughters for a family portrait together.

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.”

Mary was quite at home with her two daughters during our studio portrait session.
Mary was quite at home with her two daughters during our studio portrait session.

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.

Working in the studio with Mary was a delight. She told me about her adventures as a young woman.
Working in the studio with Mary was a delight. She told me about her adventures as a young woman.

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.

A Model Mother

This is the first post I’ve written since my Mother died in November after several years struggle with dementia (see my blog post May, 15, 2012 “Do You Remember Mother’s Day?” ).  While her passing wasn’t totally unexpected, the loss has been tremendous. She would have been 91 on Wednesday, February 6.

It’s been said that the current Queen Elizabeth of England is the most photographed woman in the world.  I think she’s second; my mother had to have been the most photographed.  During a 65-year marriage to my father, a portrait photographer who owned a studio for 40 years until he finally retired at age 70, my Mother patiently and graciously posed before his camera whenever my Dad asked.

This is one of my father’s favorite portraits of my mother, made in the early 1960s. It is a ‘brush oil’ which gives it the “painted” appearance.

All artists tend to have favorite models; my mother was undoubtedly my father’s.  She was a classic beauty of the 1940s, when in her twenties.  They met after my father returned from the Army in World War II. She was 23 and working as an executive assistant to the president of a savings and loan in my father’s hometown of Parsons, Ks.  My mother had moved to Parsons from Missouri after high school to attend the business college in town.  My father fell in love with her upon first sight.  ‘She was so beautiful,’ he says.  After dating two weeks, he told my mother if she didn’t marry him he would rejoin the Army.

Apparently, she was as much in love with him as he was with her because she agreed. When her boss wouldn’t give her the two months off to join my father and marry him in Phoenix, Az., where he had gone to race greyhound dogs for his brother-in-law and sister, she quit and went anyway.  Thus began a long and devoted marriage.

My parents were married in Phoenix, and, as is obvious in this photograph, were very much in love.
My parents were married in Phoenix, and, as is obvious in this photograph, were very much in love.

Their wedding photos are charming and demonstrated my father’s growing interest in photography.  Upon returning to Kansas, my father decided to study photography for a career.  He had picked up a camera while in Europe during the War and took pictures of the places and events he was seeing whenever he could, developing his film in creeks and his pup tent and storing his rolls of negatives that needed to still be washed in jars.  He made it home with the pictures that he taken, pictures that now offer testament to the perils of war  as seen through the eyes of a young farm boy turned soldier on the front.

I suppose he had seen enough ugliness to last a lifetime during the 2 ½ years that he was overseas as when he finally decided to make photography his career, he chose to make beautiful portraits of people.  My mother proved to be a perfect subject for many of them.

This portrait was made for one of my father’s early photography classes. He tried his hand at the ‘light oil’ technique to colorize it.

As a young apprentice learning the art of portraiture, he studied the Old Masters of art—Rembrandt being his favorite—along with mastering the technical skills a photographer must know.  Whenever he needed practice perfecting a lighting set up, posing techniques or trying out a new idea or new equipment, he asked my mother to serve as his subject.  Consequently, her life was well documented through his portraits.

You can see the changes of fashion in clothing and hair and make up through the years as my mother changed along with them.  She was always interested in keeping up with the latest styles, although the ‘mod-ish’ looks of the 60s era wasn’t to her liking.  Hers was a much more ‘classic’, almost Grace Kelly look, with soft, feminine haircuts and clothing that always flattered her.You can also see in these many portraits the love that existed between my parents as the years continued to pass.  Certainly, there were times when my mother wasn’t thrilled with sitting still before the camera when there were accounts to balance, a dinner to cook, or because she was just tired from a day’s work.  But more often than not, she granted my father’s request.

She became a pro at posing, knowing just how to place her feet, hold her hand, or tip her head. And, of course, she always had the most lovely sweet smile.

My father made this portrait in his studio and it's one of my personal favorites. As you can see, he became a master of dramatic lighting and knowing just how to have my mother pose for him.
My father made this portrait in his studio and it’s one of my personal favorites. As you can see, he became a master of dramatic lighting and how to pose my mother. The print itself is a ‘gold-tone” print, a rich toning techniique no longer in use.

All those portraits are now cherished family treasures; beautiful, visual memories of my mother who died this past November after years of struggling with dementia.  I see her everyday in the framed portraits I’ve placed around my home, the wallet-sized prints I carry with me and on the digitized images that I uploaded to my computer.

I know my father, now 93, misses her terribly as their lives were intertwined for 65 years in an enduring love story of a photographer and his favorite model.

Do You Remember Mother’s Day?

This photo of my mother was taken on Mother’s Day two years ago during a visit in Kansas with my parents.  It’s one of my recent favorite personal photographs of my Mom, who at the time, was 88.


It has become more difficult to get good photos of my Mom in the past two years.  My Mom, you see, suffers from dementia.  While she still seems to know who I am whenever I visit (or at least she seems to know that I’m someone she should know), it’s harder to get her to focus when I photograph her.  Although she smiles, she is easily distracted and sometimes doesn’t understand what I mean when I say “Smile.”  Such a simple request for most of us can be a source of perplexity to her.  I cherish the few moments when she does have a glimmer of recognition or understanding and I am pained by the times that she doesn’t.  But it is the way of her life now and, unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done to reverse or correct it.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease still mystify medical researchers although tiny advances are being made to unravel the causes and unlock the differences between the various forms of dementia.  It can’t come too soon for all the individuals and families who live and struggle with this debilitating condition on a daily basis.
While May 12 is designated as Mother’s Day this year, for my Mom and me every day is Mother’s Day because she doesn’t remember and I’ll never forget.