Love Loved Life

I didn’t make or send any Mother’s Day cards this year.  Making cards and sending them to my Mom and my aunts was something I always enjoyed and had done for many years after leaving home and living on my own.  Sadly, I my Mother passed away six years ago, (simply hard to believe still) and the last of my many aunts died only a month ago leaving me now with only two uncles whom I love and keep in close touch.

It’s an odd feeling to go from having such a large, extended family to such a compact one although I have many cousins who now make up the family network.  I was fond of all my aunts and feel fortunate to have had them throughout the greater part of my life. And now that I don’t, it’s disconcerting.

My mother’s sisters and brothers assembled for a rare photo together taken in 1944. From left: Norman (on leave from the War), Austin, my mother, Phyllis (in front), Oleta (the oldest sister), Lavetta, Imogene and Hazel

My mother had six sisters and two brothers.  She was the third in line.  They all had names that you don’t run across everyday, even for the time that they were growing up:  Oleta, Hulda Victoria (whom we called Hazel), Ollie Nadine (my mom), Jesse Imogene, Lavetta and lastly, Phyllis.

My aunt Phyllis, the baby in the family, passed away two years ago leaving only my aunt Lavetta, who died last month.  I hadn’t seen Lavetta in several years although we kept in touch through Christmas cards and correspondence.  But during the past two years, dementia took its toll and it became difficult to connect with her although she still responded and remembered her brother Norman (my uncle) who played his harmonica for her whenever he phoned.

The sisters and brothers assembled again for a photo in 1985 at the cemetery where their grandparents, father and oldest sister are buried. They were there to honor their grandparents who immigrated from Sweden. From left: my mother, Hazel, Norman, Austin, Phyllis, Lavetta and Imogene.

As a kid, she was pretty mischievous and was often sucked into trouble by her older and younger brothers.  Once, so the story goes, her younger brother talked her into laying her finger down onto a tree stump whereupon he then sliced off a chunk of it with his little hatchet.  Whether it was an accident or intentional, her brother was severely punished. My grandmother managed to save Lavetta’s finger without a doctor’s assistance, although I don’t recall exactly how.

One of her jobs on the Missouri farm where my Mother’s family then lived, was to bring the cow up from the pasture to the barn. Lavetta often did so by riding the cow instead of herding it in.  She could never retell or listen to the story without breaking into laughter, I suppose from recalling what must have been a very bumpy ride.

One of my favorite photos of my aunt Lavetta taken by my father on the tennis courts where she lived.

I always thought Lavetta was quite beautiful with her big dark eyes, short, always stylish dark hair and bright smile. She was also very athletic her entire life, who, like my Mom enjoyed playing softball when growing up.  She also was skilled on the tennis court, or at playing badminton or in the swimming pool. Later she took up bowling in which she regularly competed until back problems caused her to curtail those games.  I too have been athletic my entire life which may be one reason I always admired ‘Love’ as the family called her, and welcomed the chance to play a game of tennis with her whenever she visited.

Lavetta, with her first husband, Gene, and her daughters, as a young mother.

Lavetta began a career as a flight attendant, back in the days when they were referred as ‘stewardesses.’ She left that behind when she married my uncle Gene and started a family.  My family often travelled up to the Chicago area where they lived to visit them.  Together we’d go to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, Marshall-Field’s big department store in downtown or once, made the trek together up to the scenic Wisconsin Dells.  I have fond memories of those visits.

She later remarried after her first husband died suddenly of a heart problem.  With her second husband, Lavetta attended the family reunions in Missouri’s Ozarks where they took part in the skits that my aunt Hazel had written, sometimes dressing up in hillbilly or sailor costumes as the part she played may have called for.  Her new husband, Del, was a vocal teacher who had a beautiful baritone voice and together they’d sing old songs to entertain those gathered for the reunion and dance to tunes that my mother’s generation loved.  Del even made a CD collection of those songs for us recording a personal introduction to each  track.

My aunts Lavetta, left, and Imogene wearing their warm, plush Mouton coats. I now own Lavetta’s coat and wear it whenever the weather is cold enough to do so.

Simply said, Love loved life and loved to laugh.  While she had her serious moments, it was her big laugh, along with that acquired Chicago-area accent that I recall best.  Now that laugh is silenced forever and I have only my memories, my photographs, the CD collection and a fabulous Mouton coat that once belonged to her to keep her close. She and my other aunts are no doubt having a wonderful time together again in their afterlives.

I miss all of them dearly, especially on days like this one when I would have popped five or six Mother’s Day cards into the mail.  Our time together now seems relatively short-lived but full and rich.  Happy Mother’s Day to my Mom and my dear aunts. You still live in my memory.

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.

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.

Image

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.