A Stolen Moment

I found this 1968 snapshot, burnt around the edges and smoke damaged by fire, in a box of my late mother’s photographs and memorabilia. I was there, not in the shot, but there in the kitchen when this photo was taken by my dad. We were young, they were young, even the world was still innocent, well at least for children. Another sister held up a towel as a backdrop behind our precious gift, the golden boy, our little baby brother who was mothered by six adoring sisters. He turned out to be a well-liked man, so as far as we can tell no damage was done. You’d have to ask him, though.

From the shadows, my mother ponders while my younger siblings help give the baby a bath. From a December 1968 snapshot.

But what I found remarkable and intriguing in this picture of my brother, was my mother…there in the background resting her cheek on her hand. I had seen her tired and exhausted many times, but rarely did I see her contemplative. She really had no time for that! It looks to me, that while my younger siblings were playing along with the baby, my mom was lost in thought; deep thoughts.

Now, I grew to know my mother very well and listened to her story often over the span of her 80-some years. In retrospect, I know what my mother’s life was like at that moment in time. Even on the surface, raising eight children ages toddler to teenager, making ends meet on a teacher’s salary in a house bursting with life and laundry, dishes and meals to cook; even the least sympathetic of people would concur that life must have been pretty crazy for my mom. Add any relationship issues, broken promises, lists of dreams and plans shoved back into her housecoat pocket for another day, the loss of loved ones, and her hometown of Detroit on fire with racial tension; one wonders how she didn’t lose her mind.

Well, she did from time to time, though she always managed to find it again with remarkable grace.

I know people, a few too many, who align themselves with the Native American notion that a photograph ‘steals a person’s soul.’ Of course, you can see and understand that thinking in the broken souls and weathered faces of ancient Native Americans. The people I’m talking about are simply uncomfortable in front of the camera, for whatever reason, and most of them aren’t Native Americans.

In THIS photo, and in my mother‘s case, the camera did indeed ‘capture’ my mother’s spirit and personal pondering; her face rather sweet and vulnerable and yet disenchanted or is it dreamy? She had already experience more than her share of joy and grief for a woman in her late 30s. What was taking her away?

Raised in Detroit’s heyday, my mother came from a well-kept stately home and was one of only two children of a Detroit City Police Officer and an orderly, warm mother who happened to be the first female agent in the Royal Neighbors of America Life Insurance Company. Though they lived through the Depression and WWII, they were resourceful hard-workers; my grandparents created a good life for their two children. Mom had lots of pretty clothes, a cute and vivacious personality, tons of friends, and she, too, was very traditional and a devout Catholic.

Her life changed drastically over the course of the first 15 years of her young marriage.

For any of us, husband or wife, that have seen our lives evolve in ways we didn’t expect during marriage, we could deduce that what she might have been thinking could involve regret, sadness, even hopelessness. She had wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to drive her own car. She wanted more, perhaps, of what she wanted before dutifully bearing eight children.

My mother, even to her last days, proclaimed that she found her greatest joy and satisfaction with her babies and raising her children, and there is no doubt in my mind that that is true. It was her main occupation for most of her adult life. BUT, the two thoughts, happiness and joy with a warm baby in one’s arms, and regret and sadness over unrealized dreams and ignored plans can be simultaneous thoughts. Women, at least, can hold complicated conflicting thoughts in their minds at the same time, and THAT might explain that ‘far away’ look.

It’s not an empty look but one that is heavy with private dilemma.

I’m sure my more witty siblings would insert a smart joke here or just laugh-off the tough realities of our mother’s life. It’s over; let her rest in peace.  But I’m one of the ‘sensitives,’ and can’t help but empathize with my mother’s situation, even years later. We all perceive things from our own experiences and perspectives, and maybe I see too much of myself in my mother.

To me, my mother’s face expresses a disconnect from the lovely though exhausting family scene before her on the kitchen table. She is ‘somewhere else.’ Perhaps she was thinking about her future, maybe another effort to get herself into college. Or maybe she was thinking about her children, or just one child, and how she can help them with something. Maybe she was planning a party, God knows we had basement parties every time another of the Currie Clan was baptized or confirmed in Christ, or celebrating another birthday! Maybe she was angry with my dad and just tolerating his enthusiasm for family life, or the opposite, enjoying the break his involvement offered.  Maybe, she just wanted the ‘kid day’ to end so she could enjoy her FIRST hot cup of coffee and read the stack of magazine by her bedside, which was her custom by night fall. Maybe she was missing the crinolines and gardenias of her youth. For all we know, she could have been in prayer.

I have my own thoughts about ‘where my mother was’ in this picture, but since a camera can’t REALLY capture or steal a person’s soul or spirit, we simply don’t know for certain what she was experiencing.

And THAT, perhaps, is the beauty of the stolen moment in photography. The mystery behind the smirk, the intrigue of a glance, the sadness in smiling eyes; it’s the story that lies hidden behind the subject that makes a picture worth a thousand words.

All I know for sure is I didn’t see that expression when I was sitting next to her. I was a young child, naturally consumed with my own immediate needs. I doubt the teenage sibs saw her, for we all know teenagers think nothing of the woes and dramas of others, especially their parents. Maybe my dad saw her lost in thought and was uncertain about crossing the line into conversation; regardless, now that I’ve been ‘far away in thought’ myself, I can ‘see’ my mother and understand the daily grind and personal challenges she faced.

For that, I’m glad the camera was the thief that captured my mother’s spirit during that stolen moment, and the print gave it back to me this many years later. For that is all we need in this harsh and unromantic world, a little understanding, to not be so easily dismissed or judged, and to not feel invisible or so alone when facing the tasks that life has sprawled out in front of us on our kitchen tables.

A Penny for Your Thoughts

cropped from scanIn the late 1940s, when my dad traveled with his college football team to games around the country, he would send a one or two sentence message to my mom for one cent and a longer letter for just a few cents more. His letters were not gushing with heavy sentiment or blatant lust, but in their innocent simplicity, were still full of affection and longing, which I found enduring. Words like “swell’ marked the times they lived in, and nicknames like “Slim” and ‘Buddy,” are a sweet reminder that they were once young and hopeful, full of possibilities and dreams, before the days of diapers and bills that we all lived

My mother and father on their honeymoon out west, in the San Luis Valley, Colorado 1950

My mother and father on their honeymoon out west, in the San Luis Valley, Colorado 1950

through together.

The digital age has it’s perks, and I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to not only sort through my parent’s boxes of letters, trinkets, flowers smashed between pages from long forgotten bouquets, and personal relics, but to also be able to scan them digitally in an effort to preserve them long after even my generation is gone, is just remarkable. It’s interesting, though, how before text messaging and email, people took the time (because that was their only means) to write postcards and letters from weekend get-a-ways or excursions just to ‘drop a line’ or write a ‘goodnight’ or ‘miss you’ passage on hotel stationary and local postcards and post it quickly…without much effort. The effort, it seems, was in the ‘stopping’ to contemplate words that silently said, “I took the time…was focused on only you”…and literally sent a ‘penny’s’ worth of thoughts.

During my life with my parents, my father often mentioned a wish to see certain far-away places and reflected on the few travels he was able to experience with fond remembrance. But, the normal burdens of raising a large family on a teacher’s salary required he often work during his summers, and as the years ticked by, dreams of traveling were always prefaced with ‘someday.’

He got to Florida and California to see family and took a few jaunts to neighboring states, but my father never got very far into those ‘somedays’ before his life ended. We had our summer weeks at the ‘cabin’ in mid-Michigan, where dad, I’m sure, relived his boyhood memories, and perhaps on some level those rugged, lazy days satisfied some of my father’s desires to ‘get away’ or ‘go places.’ But, there were greater places that he dreamed of seeing, including ‘the Alamo,’ which is now just thirty minutes away from my home. Well-versed in American History and a lifetime of western movies, when my dad learned that I was moving to San Antonio, he was so excited about the prospects of seeing the Alamo and experiencing the vast mystique of Texas, that he immediately started planning a trip. Time and fate had another journey in store for him, so that trip was never to be.Letters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0001

Letters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0002I sometimes wonder if that is where I got my wanderlust, all those reflective talks of Colorado, St. Louis, and Oklahoma…places he had only gotten the chance to ‘stop’ at

Dad at far left standing. The tallest guy, always.

Dad at far left standing. The tallest guy, always.

during his team traveling: places he wanted to share with his family.  Perhaps my father’s unfulfilled dreams are what fuel my desire to drive…anywhere…just to see a new landscape, to immerse myself in history, and learn how other people live.

It is certainly easier to travel now, even by car. With GPS systems that talk to you, cell phones that can save you in a desperate situation, or to just ‘check-in’ with those that are worried, have made the scary and dusty road of travelers a safer place, to some degree. No need for the hotel stationary or picture postcards either, when just a click of one’s phone can get you and a monument pictured all over the worldwide web and a quick ‘I am here’ message can cover more territory that a one cent stamp ever could. One can send an “I love you” or “Goodnight” without the effort to find a decent pen, and calm the hearts of mothers and lovers with ease and some level of immediate satisfaction, as well.

But with all things new, there is something lost and something gained. The gains of the digital age go without saying, but the losses…the anticipation of a letter from far off places, the unique scroll of a personal signature from the hand you love, even the ‘art’ of the stamp…are certainly ‘lost’ to our comfort with immediacy. Someday, not too far in the future, there will be no more boxes of letters, postcards tied-up in once-worn hair ribbons, or those precious markings of personal handwriting left to future generations to sort through, run their fingers across, and read.  Who will ever know of the deep abiding love between two people, secret letters, and children’s words to Santa or from summer camp, or see specially selected cards with hearts and kisses penned inside, if all of our communications are just floating in a cloud? It may make no difference at all to the people who exchanged such words, but to those left behind; those before us will become more of a mystery than they already were.

Since the beginning of time, man has written on ‘something’ to leave his mark on the world or on the hearts of others. Letters and postcards are artifacts of another time and people.  Their thoughts and affections are the ties that lovingly bind us to family and friends like the ribbons they are tied in. They are sacred, real, and evidence of who we are and where we come from. They are words on a real ‘wall’ to tell our stories that will last.

Once this digital age of people disappear, what will people know of us? Surely, just as dreams of traveling roads to new and interesting places will be lost to obligation and duty, now our very thoughts and reaching words will be lost, as well. Stationary, stamps, pens, even worse… eloquent and descriptive words… will be lost to time eventually. “I ‘heart’ U” will replace a poetic tongue, a deeper meaning, and the message of “I took the time…” will lose its value. Perhaps it already has.

From a small pile of letters that my mother saved, I have gotten a glimpse of a young man and his youngLetters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0004 love for my mother, and it’s painted a lovely portrait of a 1940s couple, just as their hats, gloves, and shoes do in photographs. It documents a time in history, a union that still cultivates family roots and belonging, and reminds us how to talk to each other…even as one is just running off to meet a train or a plane…or drifting off to sleep. A penny sent a lot more than just a quick message, and is was worth so much more than we will ever know and understand again.

Certainly our grandchildren won’t know, and if we are able to save what is left of the written word in diaries, personal letters, and photographic images, they will surely see these ancient artifacts as a marvel of meaningful intention from a more enchanting time when every stroke of the cursive hand and now unfamiliar words, meant people had ‘time’ to consider others, to find the right words of love and affection, and to send them across the miles through some magic world called ‘theLetters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0005 mail’ where others ‘waited’ patiently to receive them. They may shake their heads in wonderment, but what a gift of history they will be able to experience hands-on and a personal connection to people who once were theirs.

Maybe a spark of romanticism will inspire them to do the same, and ‘writing letters’ on paper with a pen, in one’s own hand using original thought, will become a new trend again. Handwriting will return to the school curriculum where ‘writing specialists’ will be hired and revered on campuses across the land. Stationary will appear on store shelves again, and countless people will become employed by the US Postal Service.  Best of all, the writing of beautiful ‘words’ through the art of communication…may become valuable again, and people may stop and ‘take the time’ to send a line or two just for the love of it, leaving evidence that they once loved, were ours, and were here.Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0014Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0013

Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0003Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0004