You've heard me say this before. The documentary family photography sessions that I love to do are about capturing and telling a family's story, no matter how one defines 'family.' While much of my work focuses on families with young children, lately I find myself on a mission to tell the stories of families with loved ones who have lived full and amazing lives. Families whose older members still have a lot to say and from whom we can learn a great deal. In this blog post, I turn to my own family, which is something that I rarely do but now the timing feels right.
I started working on this story a couple of years ago. A lot has happened since then. I think it's called 'life.' Nine months ago both my mom and dad left our family, at least in the physical sense, to go to heaven. They both lived 88 years, and I'd say that all but the last 18 months were quality years. Up until then, they were in good health, independent, and the loving and loved matriarch and patriarch of our large Irish Italian family. I'm quite sure that they are in a better place now and enjoying a perfect 'second act,' but not a day goes by that I don't miss them terribly. It has taken me this long to be able to look at these photos and to tell this story about one of the many valuable lessons that they taught me. The importance of family values.
The dictionary defines family values as 'values held to be traditionally learned or reinforced within a family, such as those of high moral standards and discipline.' The importance of family values is one of those things that you can't fully understand or appreciate as a kid. When you're young, you're too busy playing with your friends and arguing with your siblings. You're too occupied with your daily traumas and dramas. As a kid, you're most likely just not tuned into this remarkable gift that your parents have given you. This is my story of how my family values, those instilled in me by my mom and dad, have impacted my life.
One Sunday afternoon, a little over two years ago, my parents and I decided to visit my mom's hometown of tiny Export, PA. Export is located about 20 miles east of where I live in Pittsburgh. I decided to take my camera along that day. On our agenda was a visit with my mom's sister, my Aunt Teressa who lives in a nursing home. Aunt Teressa was 91 at the time and I wasn't sure how many more opportunities I would have to take some photos of mom and her sister together.
My mom is on the left and Aunt Teressa is on the right. You would have to know the Aunt Teressa of my childhood to see that she is no longer the same fiery, outspoken, opinionated, fun-loving, gifted seamstress that we all knew and loved. Sadly, dementia has taken away those parts of her personality. (On the other hand, she's a lot more easy-going these days!) On the afternoon of our visit, we found her sitting in the common area of the nursing home with her housemates. As I looked around, I was touched by the sense of family that I witnessed. Even though they were not 'blood relatives,' the women in the room seemed to share a family bond. They ate together, prayed together, socialized together, and enjoyed visitors together.
And yes, they were growing older together.
During our visit, we tried to talk about the present, including which grandchildren were getting married or graduating from high school. But aside from, "How are you feeling today?" the present was less available to Aunt Teressa. Stories of the past, such as how she would buy my siblings and me sweet pink-coated popcorn when we were young (because she was the fun, single aunt) were met with a faint smile and a nod of her head. Mostly we held her hand and talked about the birds at the feeders outside the window. She seemed very content and happy in her world.
When it was time to go, we said our goodbyes and headed down the road to the main street in Export. I'm not sure when Export had its heyday. My memories of the town when I visited my grandma as a kid were pretty much the same as what I saw that day. It's a quiet place with a small main street, a rather large church, and a mid-size school surrounded by older but generally well-kept homes. On the way into town, we drove through the single lane 'tunnel,' as we called it as kids, which was nothing more than an underpass. My dad looked over his shoulder at me in the back seat and smiled as he loudly honked the horn. The three of us laughed as I shouted, "Honk the horn! Honk the horn!" as this is what my brothers, sisters and I did as kids when we went through the 'tunnel' to warn oncoming traffic.
We then turned the corner and went up the hill to see The Big House. This is where my mom, along with her three sisters and her brother grew up with her parents.
My mom and dad were both pleased to see that The Big House was nicely maintained. But my mom shook her head and said to me, "The house is unrecognizable from when I lived there as a kid." She told me how my grandad would freeze the backyard every winter to make an ice skating rink where my Uncle Joe and Aunt Liz would skate. In recent months while cleaning out my parents home, I came across several photos of The Big House. Here is my grandma, and a man that I'm pretty sure is my grandad, standing on the front porch.
As their children grew up and moved out, my grandparents sold The Big House and bought a building on the main street in town. My grandad, who arrived in America from Italy as a teenager, was a shoemaker. The white building shown in the photo below is my grandparents' home. Grandad's shoe store was on the street level and my grandparents and Aunt Teressa lived in the apartment upstairs. My grandad died two years before I was born but I have many wonderful memories of visiting my grandma in her apartment and the smell of shoe leather and oil that remained in my grandad's shop long after he was gone.
Our next and last stop was the cemetery where my grandma and grandad were buried. I can't fully explain the respect and honor that my dad had for relatives that had gone before him, On a regular basis, dad visited and lovingly maintained at least three cemeteries where family members were laid to rest. He was our family historian and a gifted Irish storyteller if ever there was one. He was our 'keeper of the flame.'
In my mind, there is no other explanation other than family values as to why two people, 86 years old at the time, would be on their hands and knees digging and planting and watering in a cemetery high on top of a hill in Export, PA on a sunny, hot day. I was moved and in awe as I watched my parents doing what they thought was important, which was to honor my grandparents and their memory. In fact, our entire afternoon together was a testimony to the family values that my parents had instilled in me.
The longer that my mom and dad are gone from this world, the more reasons I find to thank them. It's not that I didn't appreciate them and everything that they did for me while they were here, because I truly did and I thanked them often. It's just that as I grow older, and now that I'm a parent myself, everything that they did for me is valued and cherished even more.
So, for the lessons that you taught me, the sacrifices that you made for me, and the gifts that you gave me, including our family values, thanks, mom, and dad.