Pretty pictures.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

– Ansel Adams

Photographery wasn’t an interest of mine until I had a cell phone. True story. The first time I took photos for the sake of enjoyment I was twenty-seven. I didn’t think of myself as an artist, and certainly not a photographer, until I was a teenager and even then I didn’t believe anyone that complimented my writing or painting because I compared myself to my sister, Ann, and fell short. As for being a photographer, I still don’t think of myself as one. I love capturing memories and the witnessing what I observe in the world yet my love for photography evolved after the fact that I simply wanted to document the history of those I love. My love for photography didn’t start until eleven years and one month ago today.

My daughter was almost four months old, it was my mother’s birthday the next month, and I was nervous everytime I left the house with her. I can’t even remember what we did that day to celebrate my mom’s birthday early to avoid the heat. It must have involved pie (my mom always preferred pie over cake) and probably going to a restaurant (her other love). What I do remember was her gasp when she saw Leonora in her white outfit with pink edges and the gleeful giggle that baby girl squealed in response to her grandmother’s delight.

It wasn’t really my mom’s birthday I was celebrating that day. It was the end of my baby’s colic. My body was so shaken by the constant din of her screaming for those past four months that my grasp on sanity was white knuckled and fading. When I reached 4pm the evening before and she was contentedly smiling and gabbering I could have wept with relief. The next day I realized I could finally breath without every muscle in my body tensing and I didn’t need to hum to keep myself from breaking down and that she truly was over having colic when I reached 1pm without her writhing in agony. She wasn’t screaming.

She had two blow outs that day, took a bottle from her grandma (huge accomplishment!), and rolled onto her tummy without screaming. It was after the second poop-aganza that I gave her a full bath and dressed her in her white outfit. It occurred to me how she beamed at me when I bathed her and the idea came to me to do a photo shoot of her in the dried out bath tub. I lined it with white towles and padded underneath her with a changing pad. She cooed and winked, babbled and gurgled, and I snapped away having a conversation with her and staring into her eyes as she wiggled in her sea of fluffy of towels.

It was that day that I suddenly felt the pull in me that all mothers feel pressured to feel the moment they give birth. It wasn’t that the love wasn’t there when I locked eyes on her, it was that I finally grasped the depth of the bond I had with her and knew that I would take on anything from fire to a bear to keep her safe. Little did I know in that moment that I would someday kill spiders bare handed for her, catch vomit in those hands as well, perform first aid on her as she suffered a seizure, distract her from cuts and shots, and hold her hand to keep her brave as she went through scary medical tests. All the while smiling and nodding at her bravely as I wanted to cry right along with her.

It was in that moment as well that I realized the complicated feelings of love, admiration, and anger I had towards my mother. Did she feel this way towards me when I was a baby? Did she want to capture every moment on film so that she could share the stories with me someday?

And then the question I didn’t want to admit to myself. Why did she stay?

A question that seems easy to answer from the outside looking in. Like a viewer of a photo judging whether it is good or bad. There’s your opinion, there’s the intended image, and then there’s the complication of human emotion. As Ansel Adams said, “There are two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer.”

My mother was witty, resourceful, generous, impulsive, passionate, quirky, direct, sentimental, and secretive. For years I thought she had only a handful of photos of me as a child until only a month ago I was looking through her things and realized she had many photos of me. It wasn’t that she didn’t take them, it was that she didn’t want to let go of them. It broke me in so many pieces to see all of them and realize that there’s so many misunderstandings we carry with us through life and how little we know even those we love. All I have left of her now are the memories and photographs to me are a fragile piece of that magic. They’re a mirror into the past that is to be treasured and preserved like the love we have that passes so quickly with those that we gave it to.

So I stay in the photo even when I know the person is going to make me look horrible. I let my kids snap photos of me even when I forget to put a bra on. I turn my phone or camera on people even when they glare at me because I’m taking the photo for them. The photos are for those we leave behind because someday all they’ll have of us are those memories.

Happy birthday, mom, wherever you are. You were loved and I’ve kept all the photos. Even the embarrassing ones.

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