Posts Tagged With: photographs

Memories, Loss, and Joy: A Photographic Journey

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my parents and my brother, as well as my maternal grandmother.  Not with grief, but with joy.  They’ve been in my dreams, and in my dreams, they’re happy and healthy.  It’s good to have those memories, and today while I was looking for a photo album that I couldn’t find, I ran across some photos in a folder, and they were good ones to have.

Through them, I see an arc of our lives.  That’s part of the wonder of photographs, I think.  Select some, put them in a chronological order, and you’ve got an automatic narrative.

The first photo is one taken long before I was born.  In it, my mother Irene is the little girl on the right, with the blond hair in a bob, with a bow in her hair.  My Aunt Dottie is the little girl on the left, with the brunette hair and a bow.  Their mother, my grandmother Ella, is the woman in the photo — hair parted, waved, and (I think) bobbed.  You can’t tell it, because the photo is black and white, but her hair is dark auburn.  The man in the photo is my Charles Olaf Steele, my Grampa Charlie.


This looks like any family portrait.  It’s only when you know the backstory, though, that our family history comes to life.  This is my grandmother’s wedding day portrait — her third wedding.  Mother and Aunt Dottie are maybe 2 and 4.

Ella’s dress, shoes, and hair might be a clue about time period — the flapper era.  Notice that she’s dressed quit stylishly, with a sleeveless dress.  She was always a sharp dresser.  Mother looks off to her left, away from the camera — very shy, perhaps, or distracted by something outside the frame.  Aunt Dottie has her hand on her hip and looks into the camera, chin down a bit — she always did like to strike a pose!  Grampa Charlie is rather solemn, but anybody who knew him would know that soon there’d be a laugh coming.

Even after Ella and Charlie divorced, and after she’d remarried, he was part of their and our lives.  He’d even come over for dinner sometimes; Glenn, Ella’s fourth and last husband, liked him and said he didn’t have anything against Charlie.  I grew up thinking that this was normal — that everyone got along this well.  I’m sure there were tensions, but those were never verbalized and we kids never picked up on anything later in life.

As far as Mother was concerned, Charlie was her father.  When she was of age, she had her name changed and had him adopt her.  He was, always, “Daddy” to her — not the biological father she never knew.

By World War II, Ella had married again, to Glenn Adair.  He was in the Coast Guard, and this photo was taken during a leave home.  He and Ella have gone out with friends.  Notice again that Ella’s very much a modern woman.  You’d know it was the 1940s just by looking at her hair and dress, I think.  They enjoyed going out with friends, and there are many other photos of such events.


Dad came into the picture after World War II,  shortly after he was out of the service in 1946, living in Beaumont, and working for Sun Oil Company.  He first saw Mother when he was driving with a friend of his in downtown Beaumont, and Mother and a friend of hers, June, were driving in a convertible.  Dad liked the way she looked, as he always told it.  And his friend happened to be dating Mother’s friend, and introduced them.  That was that.

Mother was out of high school, living at home with Ella and Glenn, and attending business school.  Since she was Catholic and Dad was Church of Christ, their relationship was a tricky one.  By the time they married in May 1948, they’d actually broken up a couple of times over this, but their love was strong enough to deal with a mixed marriage.  They couldn’t marry in the church, but instead married in the priest’s rectory.  This next photo is of the two of them on their wedding day.  This was taken in front of their new car.


Her wedding suit and shoes have long since disappeared, but in my childhood I remember dressing up in the shoes and her hat.  There’s another photo of their reception at Glenn and Ella’s house, and the glasses they’re toasting with now sit in my china hutch.  My grandmother gave the set to me when I lived in Beaumont sometime between 1975 and 1978.  She’d gotten the set in the 1930s, I think.

At the time of their wedding, Mother was 21 and Dad was 25.  Again, I remember them looking like this.  Dad was tall and slim, and so was Mother.


Christmas was always a time for parties, family and otherwise.  This is at Ella’s house, sometime after 1948 and probably before 1951. I remember all of these women — they were good friends of my grandmother’s, and I met all of them.  Mother looks particularly glamorous here, I’ve always thought — again, very 1940s.

Christmas women











Mother married into the Ware family — and here they all are, at the farm, sometime probably in the late 1940s.  Mother and Dad are here, as are Dad’s brother James and James’s wife Jean — neither brother has any children yet. Uncle James is at the right, and Aunt Jean is to his left. Dad’s peeking out; you can barely see him.  Mother’s at the left, with her hair up. Dad’s sister Mildred and her husband G.C. Snodgrass, though, have two sons by now, Mike and Charlie.  Aunt Mildred and Mike and Charlie are at the front in the middle of the photo.  Uncle G.C. is at the back — he’s the one with the snazzy set to his hat.  Granddad Ware is with them at the top left. I think Grandmother must have taken the picture.

Wares late 1940s









By Christmas 1951, I’d come along.  This next photo is of Mother and me, and this is my first Christmas.  I was six months old.  The next month, we moved to Humble, Texas, near Houston.  I was their second child, but their first to survive.




We spent a lot of time at the farm with my grandparents, and some of my earliest memories are of the farm.  It was always fun to be there, and it was especially fun if my cousins were there.  We spent Christmas 1953 there, when I was 2 1/2, and here I am with my cousins Mike and Charlie.  I’m sure the doll was mine, not Mike’s!  And I remember that rocker, too.




Often when we were at the farm, we were joined by Uncle James, Aunt Jean, and their two children, Jim and Barbara.  Jim was born in 1950 and Barbara in 1952.  We’re the stairsteps — Jim is 10 months older than I am; Barbara is 11 months younger.  She was born on June 22, 1952 — Dad’s birthday.  As she told him once, she was the best birthday present he ever got!  This photo probably was taken in 1954 or 1955.  I’m the one laughing.  You might pick up on the cowboy theme, too.  We’re with Grandmother and Granddad Ware; Mother and Aunt Jean are in the background to the right.




By January 1956, we’d moved to an oil field camp near Sunset, Louisiana.  In January, when this next picture was taken, I am dressed in cowboy boots, jeans, and am 4 1/2.  My brother Phil would be born two months later, on March 25, 1956.  I was expecting and wanting a baby sister — so I could dress her up like a doll.  When he was born, and I found out that I had a brother rather than a sister, I ran way — and got as far as a tree between our house and the next-door neighbor’s house.  I climbed up it.  Mrs. Johnson, the neighbor, got me down by promising me that my brother would wear dresses and I’d get to dress him up.  That worked.  Of course, in the 1950s, little babies — boys or girls — were often dressed alike, in dresses.  My brother wore some, and I guess I’d worn them – -and they’re still in the cedar chest in Egan.



In May 1956, we were in Beaumont, at Glenn and Ella’s, and here I am with them and my cousins Carolyn and Terry, my mother’s nieces.



By September 1956, Phil was six months old. I’d gotten over the disappointment of having a baby brother instead of a baby sister.  I thought he was pretty neat.  The red couch we’re on is one I well remember — it made into a sleeper; all you had to do was click the back down.  The material was nubby — not rough, just nubby.  I can still feel it if I close my eyes.




We moved to Egan in January 1957, and one year later, Kay was born.   These school photos show Kay and Phil and me.  Katie hates this photo, but I love it.  She is so cute here, and just kind of startled. Mother wanted our hair to curl, and believe me, Kay and I were both born with straight hair.  I endured many permanents; in this picture, mine was growing out — but Mother has trimmed my bangs, and I can tell because she never cut them straight.  Mother also tried her darndest to make Kay’s hair swirl on top.  Phil didn’t have to worry about any attempts to give him curls.




Skip forward to 1973 or 1974.  If it’s 1973, it’s when we threw a 25th wedding anniversary party for Mother and Dad. If it’s1974, this is when Phil graduated from high school.  The three of us look a bit different here.  Kay and I are thinner.  She’s blonder.  Notice our dresses — short skirts were still the vogue.  I just like that it’s three of us, linked together and smiling.




In 1974, in the summer, Ella took us to Europe for a vacation.  I was going to England for six weeks to attend a six-week summer school at Stratford-on-Avon for graduate credit; Kay was still in high school.  Phil was in college at McNeese — he didn’t want to go.  Kay and I have changed, but the setting for this photo hasn’t — the Coliseum in Rome.




By 1991, the time of the next photo, we had an addition to our family.  This is March 1991, and I’m holding Kay’s daughter, my niece and goddaughter Rachel.  She was only a couple of days old here, and Aunt Cheryl was in love.  She’s taller than I am now, but she’s still the light of my life.




By 2005, Kay, Rachel, Dad, and I were celebrating as Dad’s Aunt Sallie Whitton celebrated her 100th birthday.  The back row, left to right:  Rachel, Kay, me, Mike, Dad, Aunt Jean.  The front row:  Mike’s wife Shirley, Aunt Sallie, and Aunt Mildred.  Aunt Sallie was one of Grandmother Ware’s sisters; she lived to be 104 1/2.

Aunt Sallie is 100









It’s not that I don’t miss the loved ones who are no longer here.  I do.  I suppose I could look at these photographs and dwell on just how many of these people have died, but I don’t do that.  Instead, I’m sitting here smiling — albeit with a few tears.  Sorting through the folder of photographs has been fun today.  I sat at the dining room table on and off all day, looking and remembering. There are so many more in that folder, and even more in boxes and tubs and on VHS (soon to be digitized).

Such joy in the pictures, the faces, the memories.

Bit by bit, I hope to scan many more photographs and label them.  Digital storage will take a lot less room than physical photos and negatives.  I’ve always loved cameras and photography, and apparently that trait comes from both sides of the family.  I have a collection of cameras to prove this — not just my own cameras, but a Kodak that belonged to Grandmother and Granddad Ware, from the early 20th century; Mother and Dad’s first Kodak, as well as their movie camera, circa 1957; and Phil’s SLR, a Pentax K-1000, and his video camera.

These are not photographs of loss.  They’re photographs of family, of joy, of love.

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There are years of Kodak home movies, years and many feet of silent family movies, in addition to who knows how many photographs.  In the home movies, in most of them, right at the end there’s an eye, my mother’s, as she once more turns the camera around, thinking the film is finished.  But it’s not.  Time after time, she catches a final image — her own eye.  

Mother was always the photographer, and though there are photographs of her, I find myself thinking about what it means to be the one behind the lens, taking the photographs.

Sometimes the photographs are snapshots in the truest sense — snaps of moments in time, unplanned and unstaged.  Yet even then there is selection involved — selection of the moment to capture, the scene to commit to film. Sometimes, though, the person who aims the camera makes conscious decisions about framing and staging.  

For years I’ve meant to collect family photographs and digitize them, but never quite found the time.  There would be time, I suppose I always thought, to ask questions about who people were, or what was going on.  Now, of course, that’s not necessarily possible.  

I do have time now, of course.  As I was straightening my office today, I put up the photo link and a scanner.  They’re where I can find them, where I see them whenever I sit at my desk at the computer.  And the photographs are in boxes and cartons in my back room, the study.  Some of them I’ve already put into a physical album, captioned and easy to talk about.  

Now, though, I am the photographer.  I’ve always been one, of course.  I got a Kodak when I was in middle school.  I bought my first 35 mm SLR when I was teaching at Lamar, probably in 1975 or 1976.  I’ve got my brother’s cameras.  I’ve got the Kodak that belonged to my dad’s parents, from the early 20th century.  Mother’s Brownie movie camera is here too. There are digital point and shoots, and a digital SLR.  

Despite that, there are far too many gaps in my photographs, too many moments lived but not captured on film and many now forgotten.  That’s particularly true of my college years, of my first teaching job.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs I’ve taken over the years, of friends and family, parties and travel.  

At some point, I began making yearly albums, neatly boxing the unmounted photos (with the negatives, in their paper cases).  Mostly now they’re all somewhere in the study, boxed and not sorted.  

When I was using a film camera, the film had to be processed and printed, and the physical artifacts had to be handled, sorted, and dealt with.  The digital photos, though, reside in that nebulous cyberspace on hard drives, and most aren’t printed at all.  Most aren’t even labeled.  

It’s easier to forget them, you see.  They take up no real space in the physical world, and require no actual handling and sorting, not with human hands, into piles.  Mostly, like many other people, I take dozens of photographs, even hundreds,  on a trip.  Perhaps I upload some to Facebook.  Maybe I label some.  But most just stay in a folder on my laptop, linked to my cloud memory.  And that’s not quite enough, that cloud memory.  I can’t rely on it not to simply disappear one day.  

Not that actual photographs and albums can’t disappear.  They do, every day, in fires and tornadoes and hurricanes.  They get left behind somehow in moves.  

So now, in a couple of weeks, I want to open the boxes, to sort once more into two piles (family photos and my photos), and to put the actual albums together.  I want to start with those unmarked, unsorted family photos, trying to identify what I can, digitizing and organizing.  

There is no other eye behind the camera now.  My eye is left to work through the past, to maximize the family story and minimize the confusion.  Aunts and cousins will enjoy some.  Friends will enjoy some. I know my sister will like it, and I hope my niece will come to appreciate the family she never really knew. 

And as I sort through them, both the physical photos and the digital ones, I will examine the moments captured there.  Those that I took might take me back to my own past, spark memories dimly tucked away in the back of my mind.  Those that others took, though, will take me on a very different journey, not just of identifying times and people and places.  

No, they will also let me think about the person who isn’t there, the person behind the lens.  What did that person see?  What was that person thinking?  Why that photo, that place, that moment?  I know it will all be guesswork, some outright speculation or imaginative reconstruction.  But that’s the best that I can do.  

So I look forward to that adventure, that journey into the photographs.  Into the past.  Into people and places.  Into me.

I think about photos I take of myself — as in the one here.  I’m there, barely visible (though more than I often am).  I know that I took this photograph in Cortona, Italy, in a street market one summer day while I was visiting friends. 

I’m hiding, but I’m there.  And I know other photographers will be hiding behind the photographs that they took.  

You might think you hide behind the lens.  But you can’t, not really.  You’re always there, a reflection.


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Photographs and Memories

Recently, I’ve decided that there’s a club no one invites you to join, but that you join without realizing:  the caregiver’s club.  Even though you intuit that one exists, there’s no real way to anticipate how it operates, not exactly, nor how it changes your life.

Most of my life, I think, I knew that I would end up being the primary caregiver.  I was, after all, the eldest.  I wasn’t married.  My career teaching at university meant that I lived closest to our parents.  My brother lived in Florida.  My sister lived in Natchitoches, in north Louisiana.  I also had the most flexible job.  I didn’t feel trapped.  I didn’t question it.  I was happy to fill that role.

Mother was ill for a long time; Dad retired early, at 60, and took care of her.  They had some good years before she became an invalid, with a wheelchair, and on dialysis.  For her, I was the fill-in, for the times when Dad and Phil went hunting out in West Texas.  Of course, I was also there many other times, and by the 90s it felt as though I began every semester with Mother in the hospital in Lafayette.  I learned how to read her blood sugar, how to get her into and out of the wheelchair, how to tell when she was probably having a small stroke, etc.  My knowledge of medicine grew around her.  Now I realize that her health really became problematic when she was only in her 40s, while I was teaching at Lamar University in Beaumont.  First was the blood pressure, then the brittle diabetes, then the congestive heart failure, then dialysis.  After a while, her medicines cost about $1500 a month — in the early 90s.  Yes, I learned a lot, especially to be grateful for solid insurance. I was the helper, the one who asked questions and took more notes.

But I knew I was only second-best; that was clear.  It was Dad she wanted, and he wanted to be there with her.  I don’t think I really knew just how close they were until then.  Somehow you don’t see your parents as anything other than, say, your parents.  Yet there was that one time in the hospital in Lafayette when I saw them look at each other and realized that they were still the young couple who’d fallen in love despite the odds of different religions and married in 1948.  I could help Dad out, and did.  But the job was his, and not mine, other than temporarily.  When Mother died on July 30, 1993, Dad and Phil were with her at the hospital, and I was in Egan; Phil had come in from Florida only the day before, and I remain convinced that Mother waited for him.  She hadn’t talked in several days at that point, but she was aware of us with her, and she wouldn’t leave without Phil being there.

I watched Mother and Dad take care of Phil, my brother, when he had cancer the first time, at 26.  He recovered, eventually moved to Florida, and was later diagnosed with a melanoma on his arm; that traveled to his brain, and then his spine.  By the time he was terminal, Mother had died.  Dad was once more the primary caregiver while Phil was in M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston in fall 1995.  I was there every weekend, from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, and on every holiday.  My sister, Kay, was there when she could be.  Again, I was closer and when my last class was over, I was on the road every Friday.  Dad slept in the pull-out chair; I slept on the floor.  If I could convince Dad to take a weekend off and go to Egan, I got the chair.  Occasionally I stayed in my cousin Jim’s condo; that was a real treat at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Phil was released two days after Christmas and came home to Egan, where we had hospice.  He died on January 4, 1996, with Dad and me and Phil’s fiancé, Darcie, at his side.

While he was at M.D. Anderson, I became familiar with yet more medical jargon and helped daily when I was there as nurses and Phil’s primary oncologist cared for him through one procedure after another.  For the first time since he was a little boy, he called me “Cheryl Lynn,” and I had to be there right at the bedside holding his hand most of the time.  Together, Dad and I helped take care of him, but during those weekdays while I was teaching, it was Dad who bore the heaviest load, because he had to be there alone.

Dad was such a vital person, independent and stubborn (I get my stubbornness honestly).  He went on dialysis when he was 80 or 81, and drove himself there 3 days a week. Well into his 80s he drove to East Texas almost every other week to meet his sister, Mildred (she’s 18 months older) so that they could mow the large yard and part of the pasture at the family farm.  I worried, but there wasn’t much I could do, frankly.

He was determined not to give up driving, and that was difficult for him.  Yet his family practitioner took that chore out of my hands, and when she put Dad on oxygen, that effectively ended his driving.  While I was still working, I relied on a close family friend to drive him to dialysis.  I spent a lot of weekends there, and eventually did more commuting to work than commuting to Dad’s.  Kay came in too on weekends, and spent time helping out.

We were fortunate, really, that we enjoyed each other.  We really liked each other.  Spending time together wasn’t a chore. And I needed to remember that, because there were still times when I was so tired and exhausted that I was snappy and bitchy.  (Just ask Kay!  We were each other’s “safe place,” and could unload with each other, then apologize, and it was all okay.)

So as Dad’s ability to live alone ended, I “lived” with him much of the time and commuted to Lake Charles, spending weekends at my own home when Kay came down.  She and I laugh about tag-teaming, but that’s exactly what we did.  My last semester and a half of teaching was spent doing a lot of driving, but it was no hardship.  I got tired at times, and learned to treasure sleep, but was so grateful that I was able to work out the responsibilities that way.

When I retired in May 2011, I spent most of the time in Egan.  Dad was still pretty mobile and relatively stable.  He was losing weight.  He was more unsteady on his feet.  While I was gone on a trip in December 2011, he got tangled in his oxygen cord and fell, and that was truly, I think, the beginning of the final slide.  By the end of December, he couldn’t really walk without a walker AND someone helping, but that was only for a few steps.

I bought all new clothes for him so that I could dress him — sweatpants and pullover sweaters.  I fed him too.  By the time we finally got a diagnosis for his problem — an L1 compression fracture — he was dependent.  His surgery seemed to help, but he went to a nursing home for rehabilitation care.  In the two months he was there, I got the house renovated for him.

He came home and had a good first week.  The second week?  Not very good, and he died at home just about two weeks after he’d returned.

He had been such a role model for Phil and Kay and me all of our lives, and was such a generous, loving man.  His own role as caregiver for Mother and Phil was unstinting and without complaint.  He gave joyfully of himself.  I think that by the time it was my turn for that full-time role, I had the way made easy.  I only hope that I lived up to my role model’s example.

Caregiving requires attention.  It demands much.  I don’t know when I’ve ever been so tired and exhausted.  Yet it can also be a blessing.  Time together, laughter, talks about so many things.  I would do it all again, even knowing the outcome.  While I was living with Dad, I spent time online looking for stories by other caregivers, looking for articles about others like myself.  There are a lot of us out there, and not everyone has the flexibility I had in my teaching.  Not everyone has the support group.  The club is huge, my friends.  Some of you are in it too, and we’ve talked about it.  Just as caregiving became my life, it continues to be part of me even though Dad has died.  It remains part of the way I live, defines how I see things.  How I appreciate things — family, friends, home, pets.  Even — maybe especially — time.

It’s been over a year since Dad died.  For the rest of the year afterwards till 2013 began, I think I hibernated.  Sometime in December 2012 I seemed to wake up.  The next six months have been a gradual recovery of my own life — or maybe a rediscovery, a re-invention, even.

At times, I’ve felt absolutely lost, without purpose.  So much of my life had been focused on teaching, a career I cherished and loved.  And then my life centered on taking care of Dad.  The second focus overlapped so much with the last months of teaching that I didn’t really have a transition period.  I simply moved into caregiving full-time. But after?  Neither focus was there; I was cut adrift and felt it.

I am slowly finding myself again, learning to make a life again.  Rediscovering my own home and finding the pleasures of it once more.  I’ve realized that I have never simply lived in this house without working.  Now I live here in a way that I never did before.  Schedule?  No, I don’t have one, but I’m setting one for myself.  Defined not by someone else (not most of the time) but by me and my interests.

In January 2013 I began (finally) the renovations on my home in Lake Charles.  For far too long I’d not been able to do what needed to be done.  But suddenly, it seemed, it was my time — and the kitchen project took off.  Progress there made me feel as though I hadn’t simply abandoned it to fall apart. I got the porch and brickwork repaired.  The kitchen’s not complete yet, but will be before too long.  And I don’t need to feel frustrated when it doesn’t happen immediately.

When I left for Greece in late April, I took a break.  Friends came to visit there.  I spent a lot of time reading and simply taking care of my apartment. I went to London for a long weekend.  I went to Istanbul for a few days with a friend. I visited with friends in Greece, had coffee, went to the movies, did the shopping.  And the last three weeks I was there I participated in a poetry workshop.  The companionship, the daily writing — what a treat.  The last dam of the writer’s block that has characterized my life for a year has (fingers crossed) been broken.

I know I’ve written about this before, but I am reminded of it all at the oddest times.  My cousin Mike sent Kay and me some photos he and his wife had of a few days of a trip to Lake Sam Rayburn; I’m not in either photo.  But what a treat to see Mother and Dad and Phil and Kay (and Mike and Sis) enjoying themselves.  Even now, I get a bit teary thinking of the photos.  Mother is there sitting with Dad; they’re laughing.  Phil is clearly telling a story in the photo of him in the boat — he’s grinning and has his arms stretched out as though to say “it was THIS big!”

To see them healthy and happy and laughing is to remind me that the caregiving has only been a blessing, truly.

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