Monday, January 17, 2011

When You Get Older

MJB Triptych, 2011

(Click on picture for larger)

When you get older, your bracelets are made of plastic and are more about instruction than about decoration. Gravity tugs at you a little harder. You don’t get upset about a bad haircut. Making it through the day without pain is reward enough.

While my mother kept teetering back and forth at death’s doorstep, I kept thinking I should be taking some thoughtful photographs of her. My Flickr friend Debra Ripley, whose mother is on a similar path, has taken some wonderful and poignant photographs of her “mum.”

It was hard to do this when my mother was confined to bed. Most anyone photographed against a pillow stands a good chance to looking like a one-dimensional flesh-colored Lima bean on top of a pillow. No matter what your age, it’s not your best look.

The real problem, though, was my mother, who was always known among her peers as quite the beauty. She was the Queen of the May in her junior high school, back when they did such things. In her teens she was the pretty girl who sang with a band. She and my father were once referred to in the newspaper as “songbirds.” She was married twice and had at least one serious suitor when she was in her sixties. Even in her late eighties, such elderly gentlemen at the assisted living facility as could raise a little sap liked to catch her eye.

When you’ve had that kind of attention throughout your life, you tend to be a little vai…no, let’s just say “conscious” of your appearance, especially when, as my mother puts it, you start “lowering your standards” out of convenience. The old dressing table that used to be covered from edge to edge with mirrors, lotions, creams and various tools of the trade is reduced now to but a hairbrush and a pair of tweezers.

For years she wouldn’t let me photograph her. The shots I could sneak weren’t very good. She didn’t want to be seen as a fading beauty. She’d already pointed me to the photographic portrait, made when she was young, that she wanted to have used in her obituary.

One of the benefits of dementia is that you stop sweating the small stuff, if for no other reason than that you can’t remember what the small stuff was. So it was on the occasion of a visit my sister and I made to our mother’s nursing home the past weekend that we both carried cameras, ostensibly to take a few pictures of the three of us together. I also managed to catch a few candid shots while my sister occupied our mother with conversation.

All things considered, it’s amazing that my mother is still residing on this side of the turf. She still has a lot of health challenges, but is at least able to spend some time each day sitting up in a wheel chair. To our surprise, she also displays a quick wit the likes of which my sister and I saw no evidence when we were growing up. It’s like we’re getting to know a new person.

My sister has an interesting theory about this. She wonders if perchance we’re seeing the woman our father married? Are we getting a glimpse of the humor and good nature that drew him to her long before things went sour?

There’s no one left who can answer this question. But as I look at these pictures it also occurs to me how much the profile of my face is like that of my mother. So if there’s a chance I’m getting a glimpse of a personality from more than sixty years ago, I’m pretty sure that I’m also getting a glimpse of my own face thirty years from now.


  1. I can see your face in hers. And these are really nice. She's still beautiful.

  2. What lovely photos of her--she looks happy and engaged here. Even her blanket draped around her is elegant in its nonchalance.

    I so understand watching one's parents and seeing oneself there. Sometimes it saddens me, and other times, it just makes me realize, corny as it seems, that maybe they're somehow still going to be "living on" through me.

    Your mom is beautiful, Chris.

  3. I enjoyed this entry so much. It's lovely to meet your mom and to read your thoughts on the subject of her advancing years.

  4. She's looking great! Very elegant, and she still looks like she takes care of her appearance. I'm seeing Mum on Sunday for her 85th birthday, really looking forward to it. I've softened over the years and appreciate seeing her so much more these days, and her mild dementia and the medication has softened her too.

  5. She is so lovely. You are spot on. And Mom is right.

  6. What a lovely trio of portraits! Yes she is still very elegant and beautiful. I am in the same place with my mom, and she has that same history! exactly! SO - still very concerned about her appearance, still has an eye for the gentlemen, still likes to ask people how old they think she is, because at 91, she looks 70, so adores their shocked reaction!