Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
“The best advice I ever got was from a wealthy Jewish woman who told me “Pauline, never look up to anybody but never look down on anyone either.” That’s my philosophy: it’s the person not the pay packet.”
It’s drizzling when I arrive at Mum’s house for our chat. It’s a light mist that’s barely perceptible, except on the leaves of the plants that surround her deck and in the darkening of the steps leading down to the lawn. Typical that it would pick this day to rain as Mum had chosen her park-like back yard for our chat. I see that she’s nervous, even though it’s just me; she’s fidgeting with her clothes and talking even faster than usual. I know that she’s self-conscious in front of the camera and that I haven’t given her much information about what we’ll be doing or why: I just told her that I was starting a new project that was close to my heart and that I wanted her to be my first subject. Like pretty much everything I have ever asked her to do throughout my life, the words “sounds good” slipped out of her mouth almost before I was done asking. We start out by sitting with one another on the deck but it’s crowded with her pot plants, patio furniture and the ridiculous amount of toys stored on the deck in the winter for my daughter, Daisy. Instead, we embrace our Britishness and move our chairs out onto the lawn anyway; it’s really not raining that much. (I keep the lens of my camera pointing down, though.) My Mum is a unique character, of that I’m sure anyone who has met her would agree. She’s just a leetle bit crazy, always game for an adventure and has this unfailing effervescence and positivity that is equal parts inspiring and (sometimes) downright
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
Mum’s first memory of her mother was of her stripping wallpaper from the living room for the second time because she still was not satisfied with the outcome. “Dad had just papered it and it looked beautiful. But she decided that she didn’t like it, so she stripped it all off again.”
able to find replicated in the U.S. yet, and so her memory brings back some nostalgia of my own. “He would buy me something very inexpensive but it meant a lot to me because it came from him,” she continues. “Once, he brought me a new pair of glasses in a color he knew my Mum wouldn’t let me have: pink with little gold bits. Mum was so cross. She was mad at both of us. She said they were ‘gaudy’.” Typical of my Nan. She was an anxious and disapproving woman, always worrying about what everybody else thought, likely because she spent so much time passing judgment on others.
annoying. (Like most British people of her generation, she’s self-defacing and so I know she would be ok with that assessment.) Mum also has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. The word “no” is something she hardly ever says but, unlike many people who have trouble with those two letters, she’s rarely resentful about what she does for others. In fact, the opposite: it’s where her joy comes from and what keeps her ticking. I know a lot of who she is comes from where she grew up, in the East End of post-war London, a tightknit and diverse, working-class community with its fair share of iffy characters. “East Enders” are a cultural subset all their own (there’s even a long-running British soap of the same name that characterizes them) and it’s said that, if you were born within the sound of the Bow Bells (the bells of the historic church St. Mary-leBow) you can call yourself a true East Ender. And yes, my Mum was.
My Mum’s first memory of her mother was of her stripping wallpaper from the living room for the second time because she still was not satisfied with the outcome. “Dad had just papered it and it looked beautiful. But she decided that she didn’t like it, so she stripped it all off again.” It’s a great example of the dynamic between my grandparents. As she recounts, my Grandad came home from work and ordered a cup of tea before, without uttering a single complaint, getting the pasting table out and re- re-papering the walls into the early hours of the morning. “He was somewhat subservient, but for a reason,” Mum says. “He felt that he owed her after the war. When he was gone in the Navy and she was home
But I’m looking for real memories and anecdotes, so I start by asking her about the fondest memories of her childhood. Of course, I know some things that have been shared over the years. However, a lot of what I’ve heard is the tough stuff, delivered with a dose of humor that can only be summoned after years of distance. We Brits do love to bond over hardships and complaints and my mother’s mother, my slightly nutty “Nan”, Mag, provided an endless source of stories that fit into this category. (I’d need a separate book for those.) True to this, my Mum’s fondest memory is of her time with her dad, my Grandad, Frank. He was a simple, noble and kind man who everybody liked, a World War II Royal Navy hero. My Mum was his favorite while my Nan favored my Mum’s brother, Frankie. “I remember being taken every Sunday with my Dad to the market, having breakfast with him and looking at all the stalls,” she recalls. Amongst other things, the East End was and still is known for its great outdoor markets. They have such a great atmosphere and energy that I just haven’t been
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum during the Blitz, she was bombedout three times. And every time he came back on leave to a home. She was a good woman deep down, I think, but the war messed with her head.” I can certainly speak to this myself. Whenever I slept over at her little bungalow (which is what we Brits call a one-story house) and there was a thunder storm, she would flee into her bedroom on the most protected side of the house, close the curtains and sit on the bed wringing her hands. The thunder bolts reminded her of the
bombs going off around her during the Blitz. I didn’t quite understand her fear at the time, having never really experienced anything like that, so I think I was quite unkind in always rolling my eyes at her behavior. Still, when I would sit on her lap after school, waiting for my Mum to come home from work, she would peel an apple in one long coil and happily tell me the stories of the Luftwaffe raining “Doodlebug” bombs on London. The onslaught would send her fleeing into the underground shelters with my
uncle, who was just a baby, wrapped-up in her arms. Thinking about it, she’d had a hard life, although I don’t remember her complaining about it much. (She complained about a lot of things but, strangely, not that.) “Although she was one of five children, she was the one who nursed both my Nan and Granddad as they were dying,” my Mum says, thinking back. “My Granddad lived with us for a while before he died. He was a hard man, who liked a drop of rum. My Nan died of cancer
“My Nan taught me about family … and I don’t just mean blood. Everyone was family, even friends. That’s how I was brought up: if you’re a friend, you’re part of the family.”
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum before him. She died too young, probably when I was nine or ten. I remember because Mum had to take me out of school and walk through the sewers for two hours to get to her house and take care of her. Back then, the sewers were the quickest way to get to her house.” My knowledge of my great grandparents on both sides is pretty limited, reduced to snippets of conversation I heard over the years as a child. Mum tells me that her rum-guzzling Granddad was the head of Smithfield meat market for a while and that he and her Nan were the center of their community, sharing their limited food with families on their street during the war. “They, especially my Nan, taught me about family,” Mum says. “She was big on family and I don’t just mean blood. Yes, everyone would go to Nanny’s on a Sunday for dinner and she would play the piano while we all sang along. But at Christmas everyone in the family and on the street would come. There would be a party for three days with everyone coming in and out all day and night. Everyone was family, even friends. That’s how I was brought up: if you’re a friend, you’re part of the family.” It’s interesting to hear where this family trait was born. If I had to pinpoint one thing I love about my
parents, my upbringing, it’s that they have open arms and hearts. My friends were always treated like family when they arrived in my house and friends would often prefer coming to my house to play vs. inviting me to theirs. Over the years, adult friends of the family literally became closer than family itself. My music teacher, Ken, continued to be my father’s friend long after I stopped playing the organ and, in his final years, my parents took care of him until he passed away with cancer. For me, personally, and especially as an only child, my closest friends are family to me. The one side of the family I know very little about, however, was my Grandad’s – my Mum’s paternal grandparents. Grandad spent a lot of time telling tales of his time at sea during the war but very little time talking about his family and I certainly never met any of them. “My grandmother on my Dad’s side was a Jewish money lender. I didn’t see her very often because my parents disapproved of her,” Mum says, with a tone of disdain, which goes a long way to explaining why I know so little of this branch of the family. “Dad took me to her house once. It was not far from where we lived but I hadn’t even known that she lived there. It was this big house on the corner with a long hallway and no warmth inside. This woman, who had made-up red lips and nail varnish, came to the door. In those days all that makeup and all the heavy jewelry she was wearing was con-
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
sidered gaudy. She reminded me of Betty Boop and she frightened the life out of me. “Don’t take me there again, Dad” I begged. She gave me two
His father, my great grandfather, was different, however. He would sneak over to my Mum’s house to visit without his wife knowing. He later went to live in Australia with some of his other children, where he eventually died. I’ve always intended to look-up my Australian relatives. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to meet them.
too; she also sees how apropos the event was. It wouldn’t have been a slice of her life without it. “I had this photo in my bathroom,” she says holding the first up and referring to the bathroom of the house she left behind in England. “It’s a photo of a chateau you and I stayed in in the Loire Valley in France. It was a very memorable week, one of many we’ve had together. We just laughed from the moment we arrived. We flew out and about on a daily basis and I don’t know how we even accomplished all the things we did. We met wonderful people and had wonderful meals. I still laugh about stupid things like the talcum powder in my shoes that you took a picture of as it puffed up.” Mum is referring to the incident in a busy French town called Tours when, to stave off blisters from her ill-fitting shoes, she sprinkled talcum powder (English speak for baby powder) into the bottom of her shoes. It was a great idea but she went a bit overboard and every time she took a step a big, puff of white powder billowed
Before we met I asked Mum to find five photographs that evoked a strong emotion or memory and to be prepared to talk about them. As this was my first “Vignettes” interview, I had no idea how much material I would get from memory alone and so I thought the photos would provide a visual way to jog memories and feelings. As I ask her to fetch the photos from the stool beside her, she leans forward in her chair and both go toppling to the ground in a dramatic heap. It’s such a “Mum moment” – she’s famous for her clumsiness – that I’m laughing hysterically and have to resist the urge to photograph her on the floor. She’s ok and laughing
So, to the photos. Most of them I find myself nodding my head at as she pulls them off the pile but a couple surprise me. I ask her to tell me about each photo and why she picked it © Memories by Michelle Photography 2014 | www.mbymphotos.com | Page 7
Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
around her legs. She, of course, didn’t notice and so I had to point it out to her before we gained an audience. “And then this one… of us in our resort on holiday in Kenya,” she says of a photo of me, her and my Dad at the all-inclusive resort “Hotel Sun & Sand,” just outside Mombassa in 1998. Definitely one of my most memorable and favorite vacations. It reminds me that I haven’t even scratched the surface of Africa. “This is probably the craziest week we’ve ever had. This is the three of us having a blast like we used to. It
was totally wacky, off the charts, but so much fun. It was just the best time for all of us. When this was taken, we’d totally lost it. It was such a wonderful place and such a great experience. As a family we were having so much fun and that’s what we’ve always tried to do, stay together and have fun.” Next up is a photo of my own daughter at just a month or so old, getting adored snuggles from my Mum. “This is my pumpkin,” Mum whispers, on the verge of tears now. “This is when I had finally come
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
back to the U.S. after being back to England to wrap up my job. This was the most joyous feeling. I spent three weeks in England looking at her pictures and saying ‘I shouldn’t be here. I’ve got to go back.’ Total joy, that’s what she brought to my life.” The way my Mum loves my daughter is wonderful and yet, at times, overpowering. I’ll confess that I occasionally have a hard time when she says things like “My pumpkin” or “My Daisy” because, you know, I kind of feel like she’s mine. But if this interview has served to prove or remind me of anything, it’s that we each belong to the long line of parents, grandparents and ancestors who came before us and who shaped our experience of the world. Mum has devoted her life to making mine a great one and, in doing so, she is an inextricable part of who my daughter is.
memory for the little boy’s name. “You went walking up the street from the sweet shop holding hands with him to the big street party. Then you sat there at the table looking all prim and proper. I can actually remember walking up the road, holding your little hand to meet him at the sweet shop. It was one of those little, surreal moments where you looked back at me and the little looks and the things you did… they’ve stayed in my memory. I’ll always remember your little hands, I can close my eyes now and remember how tiny and small your hands were and how they used to fit in mine.
Not to feel left out, however, we move onto a photo of me as a child. I was two and a half in this picture, I can say for certain because it was taken on the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. I am standing with my friend at the time, a little boy who was the son of the local sweet shop owner. I tell my Mum I think his name was Grahame but now, thinking back on it, that was my neighbor. The names Lee or Liam come to mind but I can’t be sure. What I do know is that I remember this day and this photo being taken. “You were the cutest and most precocious little girl and so much joy,” she says, as I continue to search my © Memories by Michelle Photography 2014 | www.mbymphotos.com | Page 9
Vignettes - Issue I - Mum Now we both have tears in our eyes because not only am I filled with nostalgia for those safe and innocent moments of my own childhood, I’m remembering how it feels to have my own daughter’s hand in mind, and thinking that someday I’ll be sitting in a chair just like this, trying to remember what that felt like. But through our sniffles, we plough on. “This one is me and your Dad around the time of our 25th wedding anniversary. We were in our lovely house in England and we were totally happy,” she says, referring to one of my favorite photos of my parents ever. I even remember taking it. I was about 16 at the time. “I think we were at a place in our lives, in our jobs, and as a family, where we were totally, utterly happy. I remember getting ready to go out that night and your Dad saying “you look lovely.” You don’t get that very often from him. So I remember it well.” That’s the thing about my Dad. He doesn’t say much, so when he does it bears weight.
The penultimate photo is one of my daughter in the back yard we’re sitting in and at her first birthday party. “She had a blast,” Mum recalls, “and I can remember standing back here and looking at her walking round the grass and thinking “that’s why we came.” She takes your breath away. Even at one, confident, strutting around, not phased by anybody. And normally with a one year old, you would think they’re going to run away. Not her, she just walked around and calmly perused the scene. And I was so proud to have it in my garden. My garden hosts a lot of things and I love it.” And finally, from one garden to another, Mum pulls out of a photo of our back yard at the last home we lived in in England, the one they sold to move out here and be nearer to me. Looking at it puts a lump in my throat. “Yes, that’s our garden in England which was a source of a lot of pleasure in our lives,” Mum is saying while I’m lost in my own memories. “I used to get up in the morning and sit outside on my own and have a coffee. I just think it was wonderful. Wonderful to have a lovely home and wonderful family. A place of peace.” It takes a moment for both of us to recover after sharing those memories, especially of our house back in the U.K. Although we wouldn’t trade it for the opportunity to live just a mile from one another, we both miss “home”.
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum The last time I was back in that house was in 2008, when I was pregnant with my daughter. As Dad drove us away to the airport for the last time, I forced myself not to look back or cry. Not having a home to go back to is hard, as if that chapter of my life is closed forever now. Before, when I could go home to my parent’s house, it was like I could step back in time and have the best of both worlds. Like most things in life, it’s not always possible to have your cake and eat it.
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
We close our chat with a forward-thinking question. I ask Mum to imagine that it’s 30 years from now and I’m sitting down and having this conversation with my own daughter, Daisy, and ask her what she would want me to tell Daisy about her Nan. “That I was adventurous and wanted to do more than I’ve probably achieved,” she replies without too much thought. I’m guessing it’s something she probably thinks about from time-to-time. “There are things that I’d still love to do but life gets in the way a little bit. I want her (Daisy) to do it all with you. She knows that too because I talk to her about that often. I just want you to go do your dreams together, have those moments that money can’t buy, those little one-to-ones, those little things between the two of you that no-one else gets. She loves you greatly.”
still lived back there and, even when I went home, I would always reach for it. It’s funny but I don’t drink coffee at their house much these days and so when I see that mug, and after all the reminiscing about life back home in England, it brings a tear to my eyes because I know he remembered. My Mum may be the openly sentimental one but my Dad just hides it under the surface. I can’t wait until he and I talk next for my second interview of Vignettes.
At this point, as we sob quietly, my Dad brings out a cup of coffee for us both. We explain that Mum had a falling incident. “That’s not an incident, that’s a regular occurrence,” he says with a chuckle as he puts my coffee on the grass. I notice that he’s rummaged through the cupboards to find my favorite mug from when I lived in England. I wouldn’t drink out of any other mug when I
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
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Vignettes - Issue I - Mum
Vignettes Vignettes is a personal project by Michelle McDaid of Memories by Michelle Photography
Have you ever wished that you could capture the wisdom and life experiences of your parents or grandparents? To record the family stories that would otherwise fade with the passing of time? And perhaps even capture the warm and loving smiles of a generation of your family who are all-too-often left-out of family photo sessions? I remember sitting with my Nan as a young child, watching her peel an apple in one, long coil, and listening to her stories of fleeing Nazi bombs in Blitz-beaten London. I remember my Grandad recounting the time he saved a man who had fallen overboard on his Royal Navy ship during World War II. I remember those moments so vividly in some ways and yet they get softer, fuzzier over time. I wish that I had had the wisdom, foresight and skills back them to grab a camera and a pen, to record these moments and their real words for my daughter and her children to read someday. Family life can be so transient and impermanent in these days of social and geographical mobility, that it’s hard to hold onto your roots and ancestry. Capturing the essence of family and relationships is what drives me as a photographer but also as a human. And so I began Vignettes as a personal project for my own daughter, to give her tangible reminders of the love, lessons and roots of her family as she grows and no matter where life takes her. At the same time, I hope this project inspires others perhaps you? - to document your family’s unique story, whether it’s your mom, your dad, your aunt or uncle, or maybe your own stories of challenges, joy and survival.
If you are so inspired, I hope you’ll consider calling me to capture these special stories in words and images. I think every person has a fascinating story to tell and I’d love to tell those of your family.
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Memories by Michelle Photography Vignettes project. www.mbymphotos.com. © Michelle McDaid and Memories by Michelle Photography