This project began organically in December 2009 as a way for me to get to know the mother I truly never knew. The camera brought me connection and separation, all at once. I was given the gift of intuitive observance and another gift of recording that observance. I learned to be bold and vulnerable simultaneously. Eight years later, I am continuing my photo essay on my mother called He Threw the Last Punch Too Hard. It’s as if the project took on a life of its own once I started. I sometimes wonder if genetic memory of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor triggered my need not only to recognize but also to spend years of my life creating photos, editing those photos and turning this project into a book, to help tell this story of a social injustice — domestic violence — about which more stories need to be told.
I dreaded being indiscreet, but invading my mother’s and my privacy was the only way to tell this story. I am sharing my mother with the larger audience because eventually publishing a book on her story would be a small victory. She instills such hope in me. I am witness to her heart and her immense reservoir of compassion for humanity. Her entire being is imbued with the quiet principles of spirituality: living in the moment, being non judgmental, forgiving, and kind.
My father used to tell me that what happened to his family and the Jews in Europe in World War II could easily happen again. So I question everything and that’s part of my storytelling aim as a photographer: questioning and sharing. We are only here for a short time so part of my goal is to create something positive for humanity. I love photography because each person will interpret an image through their own individual eyes. Ernest Hemingway said we should write hard and clear about what hurts. I believe this translates to all art forms. This blog is part three of My Mother’s Dolls. It’s an edit of my mother with various dolls she loves, that keep her company day and night.
As a bittersweet sidenote, I was awarded the Julia Margaret Cameron Award, 6th Edition, 1st Prize – single Documentary photo from my series on my mother —
He Threw the Last Punch Too Hard.
And, this project make it to semi-finalists for the CDS/Honickman, Duke University 1st Book Prize in Photography, 2016.
Early this week I asked my mother what she does every night. She said “I pray to G-d to help me.” “To help me with happiness, I don’t know how to explain.” And then she said “The hardest part of my life is accepting things.” “I want to be like you, Hannah. I want to walk.”
Between the ages of 6 and 10, I was terrified of the sea. I couldn’t go in the water at Malibu beach without someone holding each of my hands. I was sure the giant waves would swallow me, pull me into the water and I wouldn’t be able to breath. I didn’t like being scared of the unknown. Living in worry of what might happen wasn’t living. I decided when I was young, I didn’t want to be controlled by, and wouldn’t live in fear. I made up my mind I would be a stunt woman. I was 10 years old.
Why a stunt woman? I knew I would have to come face to face not with just the big waves in the ocean but any other fear that would come my way, every day I went to work. Never mind that I didn’t know anyone in the film business. As an adult, when I decide to do something, nothing can get in my way. But it wasn’t always this way. When I was 14 and my mother went into intensive care because of abuse from her second husband, my breath got in the way.
I couldn’t breathe from the anxiety I felt especially at night. The depths of the wounding that I experienced as a child who watched my mother being brutalized caused me so much anxiety, I started to hold my breath. When laying in bed, I sometimes felt as if I was going to choke because my anxiety kept me from even getting my breath past my chest. Our family doctor came up with the brilliant idea of giving me, a 14-year-old-girl, Valium. Instead of calming me down, it only intensified my anxiety.
Books took me out of my anxiety and calmed me down. I liked biographies so I could learn what made interesting people tick. Life kept me in reality, books kept me dreaming.
I read Sophia Loren’s autobiography; Living and Loving, for the first time when I was 20 years old. Sophia Scicolone beautifully described growing up in the seaport town of Pozzuoli, close to Naples. She was skinny, ugly and pale and the kids used to call her toothpick or steccheta. They would scrawl “Sofia Stuzzicadente” (toothpick) on the wall of their apartment building. It would have been easier for Sophia’s mother to give Sophia to an orphanage nearby. Her landlady knew Sophia’s mother had no husband, and the hostility she faced was unrelenting. That landlady told Sophia’s mother “why don’t you let this ugly thing die. You’re not married, you don’t have a job, your breasts are dry and the baby sucks on you without getting anything to eat…she’s all skin and bones. Just let her die.” Sophia’s mother had to keep her maiden name because the man responsible for this baby said he had absolutely no intention in marrying her mother. Pozzuoli girls were not to have babies out of wedlock. They were to remain virgins until they married. But Sophia’s mother stood up for herself and her baby. She was a fighter. Her mother was fiercely determined to keep Sophia.
Sophia described not having a crust of bread or a swallow of milk. She also described a loneliness that would cause her to climb a small fig tree in her front yard, hide in the thick foliage and stay there for hours at a time. I, too, knew that same loneliness as a child. I found my comfort of hiding in books. I also fantasized that Sophia Loren was my mother. My mother, before the “accident” was to me a Guatemalan version of Sophia. A passionate, beautiful woman who danced the Flamenco, sang music out loud like Alone Again, Naturally over and over on her record player, and wore hip, orange dresses. She loved to sail on boats, fish for shark, ride on the back of a motorcycle, eat hot sauce with every meal and was a head turner whose dancing caused men to throw their wallets at her. Because I saw my mother as such a passionate woman, I decided to live my life in a passionate way as well. Or maybe I’m just like my mother in more ways than one.
My mother’s heart was a caring, big, and compassionate heart. My mother and her sister were walking back from school when they were little girls in Guatemala. My mother saw a little white butterfly that had been injured lying in the middle of the street. She stopped, bent over and carefully picked up the butterfly with both hands and put it on the step of a house in the corner so no one could do anymore damage. A man standing watching her movements clapped when she turned to walk down the street. That’s my mother.
The poverty Loren described made her a dreamer and a fighter; an unstoppable pair. Being born into poverty created a hunger and a model for how to live life no matter what the circumstances. Sophia, determined to pursue her dream of being an actress, left Pozzuoli for Rome and never turned back. At a beauty contest in 1950, when Sophia was 16 years old, she placed 2nd. Carlo Ponti, who would become her husband, was one of the judges.
Sophia Loren married Carlo Ponti and had two children. She was a goddess. A woman who pursued and created a career and loved her children so passionately I could feel her love for them as I turned the pages of her book. A woman who was old Hollywood glamour, and an Italian enchantress who cooked, truly the entire package. I must have read Sophia’s story a dozen times in my twenties. The cover is ripped and torn, something I rarely allow to happen to my cherished books. The spine is broken.
The inspiration I received from Sophia Loren’s words was life altering. If that poor, skinny girl from Pozzuoli could achieve her dream, I thought why couldn’t this skinny ball of anxiety from Reseda who worked at swap meets on weekends achieve hers?
While working in a camera store, I met a stunt coordinator. I nicely and half begged him to bring me to work with him. On the set of Knight Rider, he introduced me to one of Hollywood’s top 3 stunt women, a woman who would change my life, when I was twenty-two years old. “I want to be a stunt woman” I told her. “Will you help me?” “Yes of course” she said. She actually meant it. She didn’t know me, I didn’t know her but it was destiny we met. She encouraged and believed in me. And, I needed someone to believe in me. My father thought the idea of being a stuntwoman as a career was simply crazy. What was so crazy about it? I liked the challenge of having to overcome and become intimate with my fears. I loved the diversity of traveling around like a circus in the film business. We roll in, we roll out. It’s like a family, a big family for a finite amount of time. I like that a lot.
My mentor, whose career spanned 30 years, gave me a start in a career that lasted over 25 years. She also taught me to breathe with Kundalini Yoga. I had to learn to be calm before I jumped off a building. Instead of reaching for a valium when I can’t breathe, I reach for G-d with my breath.
I still lose my breath when I’m too excited these days and I was trying to find mine when I heard last month that Sophia Loren was coming to Los Angeles to accept a tribute award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
I emailed a dear friend to see if he could get me two tickets. When he emailed back, “I got you 2 tickets, YEAAA” I felt joy, happiness, elation and OMG.
Via email, I invited my friend Brauna, an intuitive, compassionate, caring, thin, elegant, poised brunette whose humor never fails and who happens to be quite possibly a bigger classic movie lover than me. When we met in graduate school, there was an instant recognition of “I know you.” It was as if we had been friends our entire life plus a few lifetimes in between. People at school used to ask if we knew each other before school. “Are you sisters?” strangers would ask us in airports. You could describe us both as feisty. “I have tickets to see Sophia Loren in person” I wrote her. I knew we had a once in a lifetime night in store for us. I knew I was going to get emotional. Plus, Sophia and Brauna are women who had difficulties getting pregnant, both passionate lovers of food, life, children, people. In the midst of a bad day meltdown Brauna emails “What am I wearing to Sophia’s gala event on Wednesday? Forget about mothers, fathers, death, pain, abandonment, rejection, self loathing, rigidity, perfectionism, menopausal mayhem, the world going to hell in a hand basket — WHAT THE F AM I WEARING TO SEE SOPHIA???” She made me laugh, as she always does, just when I need it.
I found my tattered copy of Living and Loving, hoping to get an autograph. Brauna went to get her make-up done, a mani, pedi as I was doing the same, over on my side of town. I have always loved having my make up done ever since I first sat in the make up trailer on my first movie. It was a time to breathe before I went to set and had to perform a stunt that terrified me. I liked the calming touch of the make-up artist’s hand so skillfully applying base, blush, eye shadow and lipstick. The soft touch of their hand against my cheeks was soothing. I loved how my hazel eyes looked when they knew exactly what shades of eye shadow to apply to my eyelids and below my brow. They always had fun music in the make-up trailer to lighten the feeling I was carrying. Music always takes me out of my head. When Brauna pulled up in her little grey car, I’m immediately in my heart.
When Brauna arrived at my house, she didn’t know if she should wear a dress or pants so she had brought both to choose from. We were like two giddy school girls, trying to find the right outfit. I wore the cream pants that I bought in Rome that were perfect along with a new cream silk top and a favorite pair of Manolos. Brauna wore a classic black dress and strappy heels. My breath was a bit choppy as I drove from the excitement of seeing Sophia Loren, in person. I was also happy to be at the side of my friend. I cherish each and every moment we spend together. That woman, sitting next to me at the Samuel Goldwyn theatre, has been the source of healing, loving and growing ever since our paths first crossed. Meeting her was like a 2 for 1. The love I feel for her is a deep love that knows no bounds. Like the love I imagine a mother would feel for their daughter. It felt like in meeting Brauna, I got my mother back and I found a Jewish soul sister, a friend for life.
Billy Crystal, the emcee, introduced the audience to her Sophia’s younger son, Edoardo. As he walked on the stage, I was reminded of how Sophia stayed on bed rest for the entire nine-month gestation period for not just one, but both of her sons. Her strength and determination to have her children knew no bounds. I begin to feel my emotions stir. A woman who would stay in bed for nine months without moving in order to make sure her child would be born okay brought up my feelings of my own mother leaving when I was nine. When Edoardo said “Mammina, I know you still feel like the insecure little girl in Pozzouli and wonder why all these people are here for you. We are here because we love you and you deserve every single thing” and started to cry, I cried too.
After showing the audience highlights of Sophia’s finest film moments where it was apparent she was fluent in comedy and drama, Ms. Loren was introduced. The entire audience was up on their feet, clapping. Tears were rolling down my face before she made it up the stairs. I was seeing Sophia Loren in person. I felt like that little girl who couldn’t go into the ocean had made it out alive. I felt like because Sophia had pursued her dreams and made them happen, she gave me the strength to pursue mine. I felt like even though my mother had left when I was young, G-d had given me a mother in a different way, with my relationship with Brauna. Sophia wore a black dress sparkling with sequins that definitely wasn’t prêt-å-porter. Diamond earrings, a chocker, black 5-inch strappy shoes. It had been 29 years since I had read Sophia’s book, the book that gave me the encouragement to pursue the not so crazy dream of becoming a stunt woman. “The Academy Award changed my life completely,” she said with an Italian accent. Her accent reminded me of how my mother spoke English with her Spanish accent. “It helped me to believe in myself and encouraged me to push my own artistic boundaries.” She had tears in her eyes when Billy Crystal asked her whether she was happy with her career. “You always want to do more and find the right thing at the right time. I like my career, my life, so much. I was born for this. I am sick when I don’t work for a year or two.” I am reminded that Brassai said every creative person has a second date of birth, one which is more important than the first: that which he discovers what his true vocation is. I didn’t get close enough for her autograph but she is forever imprinted on my heart.
Sophia Loren is seven wonders rolled in one. She’s the personification of beauty, class, elegance, grace, humility, wit. After more than 80 films, she’s humble. Her strength and perseverance make her more beautiful than she is. When Billy Crystal asked if she liked looking at herself up on the screen she quipped “You showed the good stuff so I don’t mind.” When she spoke of her husband who died January 2007, she had to push down her emotions. Something I recognized all too well. Something I used to do until I met Brauna; who encouraged me to be vulnerable and cry.
I cried for Sophia; she never had her father but found one instead in Carlo Ponti, her husband. I don’t say “despite a 20-year age gap” as many critics do. Sophia was looking for what she was missing. In Living & Loving she said “Carlo had been my father and my husband.” She felt he was someone she had known all her life. Who cares what the age gap was or where she found love.
I also cried for my friend beside me, who was 51 years old the first time her mother truly said “ You are so beautiful & I’m so proud of you” when she graduated with her masters in psychology. I clapped loudly and wildly for her as she received her diploma for I know how hard she worked on herself for that degree. And I cried for myself, a little girl who has been looking for her mother her entire life. A girl who was given her mother back to her by the grace of G-d, when he brought a woman into her life who would help her release and heal her judgments. I’ve experienced so many gifts, including laughter, from being in one another’s lives. It’s not always pure bliss as part of having a close relationship is growth. We always come back to love and forgiveness. In mirroring vulnerability to one another, I don’t have to keep my feelings inside anymore. Brauna has been like the mother I never had, a long lost sister and friend all rolled up in one compassionate, caring, loving, beautiful, supporting package. When I met Brauna, I thought she was a 2 for 1, but ultimately she was a 3 for 1. I fell in love with her, my mother and myself.
When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice: once for herself, and once for her child. Sophia Loren
The Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea is home to an ancient site in Israel; Masada. Anything on the World Heritage List fascinates me. It’s true. Why am I in Israel? Being in Israel brings me to my family on my mother’s side, the home of the Jewish people, and a country that not only has the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea & The Dead Sea plus pretty mountains and a bonus of yummy falafel and hummus.
Sitting in a bus is relaxing as we drive in the desert since I don’t have to worry about directions. I feel my breath slow down. When we physically don’t move, our minds become still. I don’t need any mantra or teacher or technique. Our minds were given as tools to serve us not to be our master. I recognize my breath in broader terms than simply respiration. As I slow my breath down, I close my eyes remembering the story of Masada.
It’s a great, awesome yet tragic story. Not to be flippant but if nine hundred sixty Jews committed suicide so the Romans wouldn’t force them into slavery, the least I can do is climb the snake path. You can either take the snake path, which is eight hundred thirteen steps, ( I love minutiae) and was the original and only way the ancient inhabitants walked or you can take the cable car to the summit. The 1st century Roman-Jewish historian Joseph Flavius wrote of the snake path “And one of these ways is called the Serpent, as resembling that animal in its narrowness and perpetual windings and he that would walk along it must first go on one leg and then the other; there is also nothing but destruction in case your feet slip, for on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of everybody by the terror it infuses into the mind.”
You’d never see something like this in America without rail guards. Frankly I think it’s completely safe and I doubt anyone is going to fall. I have the fear chromosome. I just refuse to let it run me & my life. Honestly the walk was challenging but it’s worth the pain. I had an injury that I’ve never been quite the same from and whenever I attempt to do things like this, I pay for it dearly. In my head I’m still able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
I go off into a fantasy where I see Jewish people climbing this path and I hear them singing my favorite songs from Hebrew school. Hevenu ShalomAleichem which means we brought peace onto you. Don’t worry if you don’t get the first verse. Second verse is exactly the same. I always liked mantra because I was trying to quiet my thoughts. I just didn’t know that it had a name back then.
I wish I had shorts on instead of jeans. I start to remove my layers of clothing as I begin the steep climb. It’s just me and my favorite MJ Off The Wall t-shirt all the way to the crown.
I was nearing the top as a group of four was coming down the stairs. A woman, noticing my obvious discomfort says “take some water” in a tone that is part stern teacher and part loving mother. “I don’t have any” I replied. “Honey, give her some water” she said to her husband in a tone that was not negotiable. For a split second I saw a “why do i want to give up my water to a complete stranger when I still have to climb this entire mountain down the hill” look in his eyes. Without missing a beat, he handed me his Arrowhead water bottle. “Keep the bottle” she said my discomfort so apparent anyone could see. They continued their descent down the mountain. I leaned my right hand on the mountain as I was shaky, stopped and drank the entire bottle and was thankful for this person reaching out to me. I would have done the same. That is if I had any water. I love when we see each other.
I reach the summit. I feel the light of god’s presence which swallows my loneliness whole. As the group around me chit chats with each other I am off with my camera recording what I see. The force of holiness is looming in every crevice in this all at once sacred and god forsaken spot.
I have a meeting with G-d. I ask if he can take away my mother’s pain and sorrow from living in a home for the aged for thirty one years. I further make a request to remove my sister’s hurt and anguish because she’s the only one who visited my mother most all those decades. Please G-d grant me acceptance of my mother’s life. I beg him. I have no choice but to feel everything I have been running from.”Sorry but it’s all yours” he says. Mine’s so big he can’t make any arrangements. It’s karma that belongs to me because I choose her to be my mother so I could learn forgiveness. Who was it that said no matter where you go there you are? I flew all the way to Israel and I still can’t get away from me.
Freud defined neurosis as the separation of self. If I’m a child of G-d then the love is inside of me. It has been all along. It’s so simple but we mess it up. Whenever love disappears we become fearful. Fear is to love just as darkness is to light. Anytime your mind goes south, it’s fear that the love is gone. G-d didn’t create fear. We did. If it’s not love, it’s an illusion. Speaking of illusion, next stop is the Dead Sea. It doesn’t seem like it could be real.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. But the translation is not accurate. Yam Ha-Melah, means the Salt Sea. It’s the lowest place on the earth, 33.7 % salt and eighty six times saltier than the ocean. It’s so dense you can’t really swim rather you float. You can see my view from the Israeli side looking across to Jordan.
As I sit silently in the bus as we make our way back to the bus station in Tel Aviv I begin to think of my father and what it took for him to leave Poland after losing his entire family during the Holocaust, seven siblings, his mother, father and both sets of grandparents. No one. He was completely alone. He didn’t speak English, not a dollar in his pocket and he boarded a ship to make his way to America. He had nowhere to go simply because he was a Jew. Out of nowhere I feel the emotion well up inside of me like a wave. I have no family on my father’s side because he is Jewish. That seems insane. I’m in Israel because I feel connected to the people here. There’s an unspoken understanding we have. Even if I feel as if I don’t belong sometimes; which I struggle with less and less; in Israel I am part of a group.
I moved to Israel thirty years ago to deal with my feelings and emotions surrounding my mother. Now I am back in Israel and am thinking of my father and what a survivor he is. In the dictionary there is a photo of my father next to survivor. He worked a nine to five job for thirty years at Hughes Aircraft as an aircraft inspector. On his lunch hour some days he’d sell porn out of the trunk of his Chevy Nova and/or leather jackets he would buy wholesale. Once a week he’d tell his co-workers to cover for him as he would drive to downtown Los Angeles from Culver City, a half hour drive, to buy clothes second hand which we’d sell every weekend at the swap meet. “These pants are too small.” someone would say trying on clothes. “They’ll stretch” he’d swiftly reply. “These pants are too big.” from another.” They’ll shrink.” he’d come back just as quickly. He bought real estate on the side; renting out homes in the San Fernando Valley. My father was raising five children so he had to hustle. His motto of stay hungry kept him working non-stop seven days a week. I never saw my father kick back on a couch on Sunday with a Budweiser can in his hand. He makes most men look like bums my father. He taught me to sell just by watching him. My eyes are so filled with tears now that I can’t see the road anymore. I don’t need to see it. I’m not driving. I’m thinking about a friend that I miss so much that I flew to Israel for the holidays so I wouldn’t have to be at home. I have a tendency to run when I start to feel too much.
I’m noticing the beauty that is in front of me and all around me. G-d created the mountains on either side of the road and the sun is beginning to set as the sky turns a brilliant orange and pink. I have a bag filled with bath salts from The Dead Sea that I purchased to give to a friend along with olive oil to bring a friend because she practically lives on it. Michael Jackson is singing to me from my iPod and in between the tears from thinking about how inspiring my father is; I am humbled with how blessed I am. I am in Israel, I’m thinking to myself. I have my mother’s family here that I love, friends like Hope and her beautiful family are nearby and I have time to be alone when I need to. When I return home I am going to visit my father. I will call him just to say how are you doing Dad. I have my breath. My life is a blessing and a gift. I’m off to search for the perfect hummus and falafel in Tel Aviv when I get off this bus. And a side of forgiveness.Now we’re talking.
I’m going to see my mother I decided as I was speaking to a friend on the phone. This may not seem like a big deal to anyone who visits a mother with regularity. For me, it’s mammoth. For decades, I wasn’t able to go at all. Then I could only go with my sister. Then, for a while, only with my intuitive healer as she held my hand. When I became able to go alone I could do it only with my camera in tow. My camera provided me with an extra wall of protection from my feelings.
“You’re too sensitive” my father would tell me when I was a little girl. “Hannah, you have to control your feelings, don’t let your feelings control you.” he said later when my mother wound up in intensive care at UCLA hospital. My mother is the longest living resident in a home for the aged. Perhaps it would be easier to accept if she ‘d actually been aged when she entered the hospital-like setting thirty-one years ago. She was forty-one years old then and my family had been trying for five years, between rental homes and hired help, to take care of her after she suffered brain damage at age thirty-six. She had left my father for another man. That man abused her to the point of life in a wheelchair. That man, whose name I still can’t say, was no longer in her life.
When my mother entered the home, we had run out of options. I understood her anger. I’d be pissed too if I ended up crippled but the women taking care of her couldn’t handle her explosions. My mother was a passionate brunette from Guatemala who used to dance the Flamenco. My uncle told me men would throw their wallets at her. Today she is incapacitated to the point of not being able to walk, feed or clothe her self.
I pulled off the freeway and into the familiar lot. I just wanted to see her and tell her I loved her. A wave of emotion came up inside of me and as I backed my car into a parking spot, I realized I couldn’t go in. My eyes were red, the tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt utterly exhausted from the emotion. Sometimes my emotions overwhelm me and all I can do is crawl into bed, into the fetal position that I sleep in, my way of saying I want back in the womb. “Mami, some days just bring the feelings back” my friend said to me on the phone that afternoon. Mami is a term of endearment we say in Guatemala. It seems to have stuck with certain friends.
“But why” I asked as if she could give me an answer. “I thought I was doing so much better.”
Her compassion and understanding were exactly what I needed. “Think of physics. Nothing can ever be at the same place at the same time. A spiral. If you start to go around the spiral, you can be right next to where you were but you will never be in the exact place. Does it ever end up at the same place.” Her words were so soothing as I was melting.
I gathered myself enough to walk into the metal doors. I took a deep inhale before I entered as always. Then I take a deep breath to exhale as I walk down the hallway of familiar linoleum floors that look as if they haven’t been changed in thirty one years. The smell hit me as I was buying a little time with my exhale. A combination of old, sick people, disease, disinfectant, dirty skin, age. I poked my head into my mother’s room. I notice the green curtains long ago faded by the sunlight. Three wheelchairs gathered in a corner of the room. A border of pink & blue flowered wallpaper along the top of the wall. A miniature lone Christmas tree on top of a cabinet from one of her room mates. Never mind that it’s April. My mother was sleeping while a woman in the next bed kept crying and pleading to no one in particular; “Oh, I didn’t do nothing wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. I did everything correct. Please G-d help me up. Please G-d ayudame por favor. Please help me up. I have no shoes on. Nurse, nurse” at which point her cry turned into a wail. To keep from crying myself, I had to pretend I couldn’t hear her.
How has my mother managed to sleep with all the voices, noise, lights, blaring TV? I guess after all these years she’s figured out a way to block it all out. I wish I could say the same for me. I am sensitive to certain voices, the sound of television commercials bother me, my cell phone ringing sometimes startles me and I have to switch it to vibrate, jack hammers make me cover my ears and run for my front door. I know I sound dramatic. I have exaggerated emotional responses to just about anything. I have a friend who used to say I was dramatic. She’s right. My brain behaves differently than the average bear’s. Part of the damage that remains for me after watching my mother being abused when I was nine until fourteen; when she landed in intensive care after one night when the beatings went too far. I had pestered my father to bring my mother one of the leather jackets he sold. She liked pretty clothes. That night, a fight ensued between my mother and her second husband. We all have secrets from childhood. My secret for decades was I thought it was my fault she wound up in the hospital.
As the nurse came to help the crying woman up, I turned to my mother in her single bed. Her eyes were closed. She was sleeping quietly. Seemingly careless to our world. She seemed serene. She wasn’t suffering. But I was. My mother taught me forgiveness. I have come down a long road to get to where I no longer judge her as a bad mother. She wasn’t a bad mother. She fell in love with someone else after my father. She listened to her heart, not her head. I’m not different from her. Perhaps that’s why I judged her. I was still judging myself. I’m not anymore. I love whom I love and I don’t care who judges me.
I fire off some photos from my camera. Direct, straight, honest, without pretense pictures. I don’t have a modicum of regret about expressing my feelings through my photos. These photos are meant to take me out of my comfort zone. When I return home to view the pictures I’ve taken, I experience my mother again and I feel my emotions without fear. I was in denial for so long. My photos force me to accept the reality of her right here and now. I wonder when she suffers. I know she remembers so much. That’s why she speaks in her mother tongue of Spanish; she remembers her past. I miss never truly having her in my life. I have the courage to feel all of the sorrow I ran from all those decades. She’s influenced my life in every way but she doesn’t know that which makes me feel an intensified anguish that seems unbearable at times.
My mother doesn’t need a fancy home or clothes or car to feel good. When I brought her a cheeseburger from Fat Burger and I asked her “le gusta?” “Do you like it? “She answered “me encanta.” “I love it.” She’s so in the moment it hurts because she mirrors back to me that I’m frequently not. She suffered to teach me to forgive her. It took me forty-seven years to meet the intuitive healer who would help me heal my anger at my mother for leaving. The healer that I love like the mother I never had, a long lost sister and a friend all wrapped up in one. That’s another story.
I looked at her feet. Her toes are permanently bent down in a way that says decades of not walking. Her feet have not been touched, or rubbed or massaged in probably 41 years. I mean really touched, stroked, cared for. You know the way you rub someone’s feet when you really love them. Part of my sadness is I was not able to visit her let alone rub her feet for too long to admit.
I didn’t need to travel around the world to deepen my spirituality. My greatest teacher was in front of me my entire life. I just couldn’t see it was my mother;a true Bodhisattva. She forgave me for not visiting her all those years and she did that without uttering a word. I forgave her for leaving. For me, forgiveness is when you care about the relationship more than your ego.
One of the nurses banged hard into my mother’s bed while trying to help the woman crying in the next bed. My thoughts were interrupted and my mother was awakened. I just shook my head in silence. She can’t even get in solid sleep, I thought. I watched her open her eyes. I could see she was tired. She looked in front of her, couldn’t see it was me without her glasses, closed her eyes and fell back into sleep. After 31 years of living in that room, in that place that is her home, in that building, I suppose everything must make her tired.
This is my mother. No wonder sometimes I’m tired too.
Mother’s Day has never been easy for me. I can’t imagine it was less difficult for my mother. For decades it was a reminder of not having a mother in the way that I would have liked. A mom to make lunches, help me pick out school clothes and tuck me into bed. All the Hallmark cards were obviously written by someone who had a mother growing up. “Thanks Mom for being there”. “I can’t imagine a better mother than you”. I stopped looking through the cards. There wasn’t one that said “I love you even though you had to leave and I understand that now as an adult”.
When I was a child my mother abandoned my family to have an affair. The man she left us for turned out to be violent; he beat her so badly that she suffered permanent brain damage and had to be moved into an assisted living facility where she still lives today. Of her five children, only my younger sister has visited her regularly over the years.
I have early, fond memories of my mom as a beautiful, passionate, vivacious, and fiery, Guatemalan Sophia Loren. But since she left us, I have had tremendous feelings of abandonment and rage towards her. Her actions led me to judge her as impetuous, selfish, reckless,and a negligent mother. I resented what she did to herself and her family. I carried so much anger, yet whenever I saw her, I was overcome with pity and sadness. Just looking at her gnarled hand from the brain damage brought forth more emotion than I could bear. For these reasons, I have virtually ignored my mother to try and distance myself from my own pain.
I have been pushing down my feelings about my mother for decades. In graduate school I began to dissolve the judgments I held against my mother with the work I did with a healer. Last year I did something different. I began to explore and photograph my mother for the first time with my camera. This is what I do with my feelings now. On this road to acceptance, I can experience my raw emotions through the safe distance of a camera lens.
Annie Leibowitz’s advice to young photographers is to “start with friends and family. The people who will put up with you. Stay close to home. Discover what it means to be close to a subject.” Photographer Steve McCurry said “If you want to be a photographer, first leave home.” When I started taking photos as a little girl, I stuck close to friends and family. At twenty I hit the road, moving to Israel and was happiest when I was taking photos in another country. I’m back to photographing what is close to home; my mother, father and even myself.
I went early in the afternoon to see Robert Zuckerman’s photo exhibit. I met Robert on a movie in the early nineties. Robert is a wonderful still photographer for the movies but I especially love his personal work. What immediately struck me about him was his caring, compassionate heart. Robert sees people. He goes out of his way to make someone’s day lighter. His project Kindsight is about everyday people, the humanity in people. The moments are informal. The overall sense is one of upliftment. Check out Robert’s blog.
I’ve been working on three different projects at once. One project is my mother. This project isn’t so uplifting but I’m shooting what I am compelled to and seeing my mother is a gift for both of us. I am able to visit my mother alone which was not always the way for me. I started earnestly back in December after an emotional time. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that I always have my camera with me. The camera offers me an extra layer of protection if you will. Going to visit my mother is still not easy. But it’s not as difficult as it used to be. With my camera I am able to see beyond my naked eye. I am trying to create an emotional connection instead of the distance that I created all those decades.
I find an odd doll that has somehow ended up in tucked in her wheelchair in her room. I’ve found it once before. It’s kind a creepy plastic face and someone took the time to knit it an informal dress. My mother holds onto this doll as if it’s her child. I see how she sometimes grabs it too tightly, just like I do to my cat.
It’s not until I come home and ready myself for the downloading process that I begin to get ready to truly face my mother and myself. After the camera is plugged into the USB connection, the photos start to appear quickly before my eyes but not so fast that I don’t immediately know which photos will end up in my ongoing slide show. I have a total of thirty photos that I have shot since I began this project. I’ve watched the slide show dozens of times because of the editing process. I think “today I’m not going to cry” and I honestly believe I won’t. Because how many tears can one person shed over and over?
I’ve read that Michael Jackson always said “I love you more” after someone said “I love you”. Today when I was leaving my mother, I said “I love you” to her to which she replied “Quiero mas yo”. “I love you more” in spanish. I felt my eyes water as I walked out of her tiny room where she has lived for more than thirty years since her brain damage occurred.
I started reading Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters. I began crying at the passage, “I want my mother. I want my mother. I want my mother now“. Okay, you may be thinking, “This Hannah broad is whiny and wimpy.” Truth is it took decades for me to be able to admit to feeling and crying. So there.
I was already feeling thoughts about my mother today as I was editing more photos I took of her. After seeing Hope, I went to the aging home where my mother lives to bring her tacos and the package of candy I did manage to bring from Guatemala. My sister pulled up at the exact moment I did, which was ironic because that has never happened there. Esther brought a protein shake and I had two steak tacos with guacamole, cheese and hot salsa for our mom.
I started to feed her outside at the table where the aides relieve stress by smoking. When it became too cold, I put my black sweater that Joyce gifted me in Guatemala, on my mother. We gave up and went inside because of the cold.
She was upset when my sister and I began to get ready to go. Her only regular visitors are my sister and I and when we get ready to leave, her energy changes. She knows it’s back to her room with the two older women who have been there forever it seems. One of them used to sound like a choo choo train every 30 seconds. She has stopped that noise for now. The other one lets out a blood curdling scream now and then that I still shudder from when I hear it.
I realize today as I was editing my photos that looking at my mother through the safety of my camera lens is one step closer from where I used to be. In the past, I couldn’t see her at all. At least now after graduate school and my work with my healer, I visit my mom even though I am usually camera in hand.
Editing my photos tore me up today. But as Hope says, you cannot avoid pain as I did in the past. “They know how much pain they can tolerate at any given moment, and when they reach their limit, they simply shut it off and do something else.”-Hope Edelman. I did learn that from the work I did with my healer. Hope gave me a beautiful gift with Motherless Daughters.
I signed up for her writing workshop after seeing her yesterday. I always look for signs to see if I should do something. Her humble presence was my sign. Maybe it was the one egg on her plate with the toast and butter? “It keeps me for hours” she said. “Very mothering and nurturing” I thought to myself. I’m looking forward to telling my story on paper and I think she will be the perfect teacher for me.