Photo memories of Mom

All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget.   ~John Berger

Sometimes I have to rely on the lens of memory to see her as the true beauty she once was.

Waiting for the occupational therapist to arrive, my widowed mother is slumped in a chair in her new assisted living apartment. Her naturally wavy gray hair is long overdue for a good cut, and the navy stretch suit shes wearing is at least a size too large. She looks older than her 81 years.

Mom doesnt seem to care, which is totally unlike the woman she was before vascular dementia began devouring her pride, her self.

Not long ago, she was the sort of woman who wouldnt be seen anywhere without a fresh application of her favorite Estee Lauder lipstick.

Not surprisingly, shes confused and miserable in her new surroundings. She spent a week in the hospital at the end of last year, then another four weeks at a nursing rehab center. She wants to go back to her own condo — now — but I don’t have the heart to tell her (again) that this will be her home for a while.

Working with the assisted living staff, I keep trying different things to distract her. I want to help my mother enjoy whats left of her life; to earn back her approval. And I desperately hope to see a glimmer of happiness or a trace of contentment on her face. But as I listen to her litany of complaints and watch her struggle just to rise from her chair, I cant help but wonder if the goal is out of reach.

A museum of her former life

After my visit, I drive across town to retrieve more of Mom’s clothing from her condo. As soon as I arrive, I wander each room tentatively, half expecting to find evidence of intruders. Or ghosts.

Gathering dust in her long absence, the whole place is as quiet as a mausoleum. A recipe box sits next to her blood pressure cuff on the kitchen table, exactly where my mother left them the day after Thanksgiving — the day I drove her to the emergency room. There are plates in the dishwasher and an old grocery list on the counter. With no one else living here now, the condo feels like a museum of my mother’s former life. And every piece of furniture is a relic of our familys past.

Which is partly why Im overcome by an urge to dig through Moms closet for an album of family photos dating back to her childhood in 1930s.  At first, I tell myself that the photos might trigger some happier conversation with my mother at the assisted living residence.

But in reality, I’m the one who needs to be reminded of the strong, beautiful woman she once was.

An album of another era

Flipping through the album I’d been looking for, I pause at the sepia-toned photo of Mom when she was barely three years old.

I am always moved when I see photos of my parents as children. And while dementia has rendered my mother more helpless than ever, this particular photo shows her at her smallest, most vulnerable self.

In it, Mom is standing bow-legged in a sandbox behind the Indianapolis home of her beloved grandparents, the folks who took care of her while her newly divorced mother was at work. A source of shame in those days, divorce was rarely discussed openly in my mothers household. Much later, shed share stories of how her young father abandoned his new family — right before she was born — and how her grandparents helped support her mother during the Depression.

In the photo, Mom wears a swimsuit and a pair of beaded moccasins. Holding a tiny shovel and a rubber ball, she looks as if she were caught off guard; her smile is more of a question than a statement. Still, theres the twinkle of determination in her dark brown eyes.

The dance of her life

Moms stepfather, who came into her life a few years later, was an amateur photographer. His devotion to his hobby, and especially to my mother, is evident throughout the photo album.

In one portrait, my mother is dressed for a dance. Her prom gown flaunts an artful confection of ribbons on one shoulder – a testimony to my grandmothers talent with a needle and thread. Mom is also wearing a corsage, and I cant help but wonder if my handsome, black-haired father had presented it to her just before the photo was snapped. (My parents started dating after they met at a Presbyterian church youth group in Detroit.)

Because the photo is black and white, I can only guess that her dress is white, or maybe a pale shade of blue. It’s likely that her lipstick and nail polish are deep crimson, as dictated by the film stars of the 1940s.

But there’s no denying that my mother looks gorgeous and happy in this portrait. The sweet promises of true love, her own home, and a secure family — all she ever wanted — are almost within reach.

It also occurs to me that this album of memories belongs with my mother in her new assisted living apartment, not hidden away in a closet that she probably wont ever open again. So I pack the book in my car along with another bag of nightgowns and a new package of incontinence products.

The following day, when I reintroduce her to the album and its treasures, her eyes light up as if shes seeing the photos for the first time. Her oldest memories rush forward — they never left her, of course — and she recites the names of all the beloved people and places in the vintage photographs. She pauses at a shot of her grandparents and spins another reverie of their beautiful Tudor home on the river near Indianapolis.

I’ve heard the stories many times before, with or without the photographs, but that’s OK. For the first time in ages, my mother is animated and smiling. And her beauty shines through. — Cindy La Ferle



25 thoughts on “Photo memories of Mom

  1. She’s so lovely, Cindy. This is a beautiful, bittersweet tribute to your mom. It reminds me of the passages my own mom is making and it isn’t easy to consider these changes. Your writing does so with honesty and honor.

  2. You did a wonderful thing, Cindy– taking he album to your mom. I hope it brings her hours of joy and conversation with staff and other residents who will get to know her better through the photos 🙂

    xoxo jj

    • JJ, it does give us a different conversation topic when others come to visit. I brought a friend who happens to be the mother of my son’s fiancee, and it was nice for my mother to be able to share more of herself through that photo album. Her dementia and hearing loss make it hard for her to come up with new topics of conversation — and old photos do help.

  3. A beautiful gesture Cindy brought tears to my eyes

    *of sorrow for you for the emotions at play as you walked through her condo, noticing and touching her possessions, searched for the album and looked through it.

    *of joy for her as she was re-connected to the life (people, places and events), she one knew and loved.

    Cindy, you are a gem of a daughter.

  4. Cindy,
    You are definitely your mother’s daughter as can be seen in the lovely photos you posted of her. I’m experiencing similar situations in my own family. While not an easy one, this final life lesson that you are sharing with your mom will surely bring many trying times. Along the way though, you will just as surely be rewarded by little joyful discoveries (such as the photo album that made her smile) that will undoubtedly bring joy to you both. I wish you an abundance of these happy moments to fill you up and tip the scale of your heart towards peace.

  5. I thought for sure that the prom photo was you. I remember you at about that age, mostly because I was jealous of your “gamin”good looks. I also remember your Mom and how kind she was to me, an awkward, adolescent “visitor.”
    She’s lovely, Cindy…and you? You’re a good kid!!

  6. Cindy, those memories are so important to treasure. What a thoughtful thing to do for your Mom. I remember when we were cleaning my mom’s condo, we truly enjoyed seeing the old photographs the most. Before Ray’s Dad went into a coma, at Christmas time, Ray was showing him photographs of his past, and his Dad’s eyes just lit up…reliving happy memories despite his Alzheimer’s.

    • Cindy H — I think nursing homes would benefit by incorporating “Old Family Photo” day into their special activities. Along these lines, I just ordered a subscription to “Reminisce” magazine. I never really “got” that magazine until recently. Nostalgia is essential to older folks with short-term memory. It must be very rewarding to be able to recall the distant past, even if you can’t recall what you had for breakfast. 😉

  7. Lovely, Cindy. I continue to be inspired by your posts, not only as a writer but as a daughter/caregiver.
    I’ve been so busy helping my mom and dad that between that and keeping up with work, it’s been easy to put off working on an essay here and there. But more and more I feel the urge to write and know these types of stories are important to tell and share.
    I also love, love, love old photos. I adore and treasure the pictures of my parents before I entered this world. They are like magic and I unearth them as often as possible. No way should those types of things stay hidden away.
    I hope your mom settles in soon.

    • Thank you, Ellen. I have enjoyed the posts you write about your parents, and periodically I stop by your blog to see what you’ve been up to. (I know you are busy with your other writing work.) When Nate was small, I started the practice of writing about the changes and struggles in my life — and how I felt about them. What it means to become a mom, losing a parent, letting go of a child, etc … and now, the next phase is learning how to “parent” my mom while remembering (with respect) that she is still my mother. And learning how to miss her, too.

      So I urge you, and every writer who’s reading this, to write it all down. I often start with a few scribbles in a note pad. I started this post/essay while I was sitting in my mom’s kitchen at the condo, waiting for the dishwasher to finish its cycle. I just jotted a few thoughts, what I was feeling. It’s very therapeutic, as you know!

  8. Cindy, these are beautifull photos of your mom. It was a shocking surprise to read your coments, they were beautiful and so caring. Your mom and and dad were among our oldest friends at Cooley High in Detroit. My husband John concidered Bill to be his best friend back in 1944 when he(John) joined the Navy. We were friends through the years and shared so many happy times. We just heard about your mom today in your letter which was sent to us by Jack and Gwen Baker…it was dated Jan 3rd. I will write a letter as soon as I can. There is so much to say. We loved your parents…though we live so far away and, yes we are in our 80’s We have fond and loving memories. With love, Edith & John G.

  9. Cindy, these are beautiful photos of your mom. It was a shocking surprise to read your coments; they were beautiful and caring. Your mom and Dad were among our oldest friends at Cooley High in Detroit. Will write a letter soon. Send us your e-mail address.

  10. Edith, Of course I remember you and how much my folks adored you and John. This is one of the miracles of the Internet — being able to reconnect like this. I will send you an email right now. Love to you, Cindy

  11. Cindy, what a wonderful way to connect your mom with her “happier” days. It was a inspiration on your part to think of this for her. Thinking of you often.

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