99 Years—A Picture of My Mother

On October 5, my mother turned 99 years old. She lives in a nursing home, comfortable and clean. Her mind is in a different world, going places and doing things not possible from her wheelchair. She loses words and I don’t always understand the words her mind invents. She always gives me a big smile of recognition and love.

When I think about how much the world has changed in her lifetime, it’s as if her life has mirrored the history of photography.


A sepia-toned studio portrait shows my mother as a baby, the first of her family born in America, with a boatload of Italian immigrants—her parents, sister, cousin, aunt, and uncle. No, they didn’t arrive on the Mayflower, but passed through Ellis Island to New York City for a better life, living in a tenement apartment with a toilet down the hall, and communal baths down the street.

M_lenore_flapers_poconos My mother’s family managed to survive the Great Depression. Her father was a tailor and her mother was a seamstress—two needed professions in NYC. Out of high school, my mother worked as a secretary six days a week for $7 (weekends hadn’t been invented yet).

MnP_wedding_glamIn the early forties, she met a funny, bespectacled young man and married him before he was shipped out to India during World War II. She sent him a Hollywood-style glam portrait, so he would hurry back home to her.

M_williamst_fairLike many post-war young families, we followed the American Dream and moved into a brand-new suburban split-level house in a neighborhood with dozens of other split-level houses. My mother was the model housewife, with a tidy, fashionable home and spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove for hours on Sundays. Photography turned colorful. My mother nurtured and supported me, encouraging my creativity (even letting me paint flowers on her car in the sixties).

MnP_catherdral M_anna2Seemingly in no time, my parents celebrated 50 years of being married to their very best friend. When I hadn’t found a best friend to marry, I knew I still needed to be a mom. My mother was the loving voice of reason when I decided to adopt a child. I cried to her about the photograph of a sad little cross-eyed Russian girl with a buzz cut who might become my daughter. “She just needs a mother to put a smile on her face,” my mother wisely said. And she was right. She became a doting grandmother to my Anna. Even in her present, confused state-of-mind, she lights up with a big smile when she hears Anna’s name.

In 2002, both my parents had emergency surgeries at the same time, landing them in adjoining rooms in the intensive care unit. My father recovered, but my mother was on a ventilator and feeding tubes for four months. In rehab, she was unable to sit up or speak, but she kept fighting. Then, her dear husband died of a heart attack, but I know it was a broken heart.

thanks_christ That was 11 years ago. My mother’s tenacious will to live got her out of a hospital bed to a wheelchair to using a walker in assisted living. She had many years of activities, family holiday dinners.

M_baby_99 From a seemingly-ancient sepia photograph to a color digital image of a smiling, 99-year-old birthday girl, my mother has been the picture of a full and loving life. Happy birthday, Mama. I love you.

15 comments on “99 Years—A Picture of My Mother

  1. sudiptabq says:

    Beautiful post, Mary. Just beautiful.

  2. kamikinard says:

    What a great story of the American Dream played out, and of a mother-daughter bond. I wish we could see that car with the flowers painted on it too!

  3. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    What an amazing and beautiful tribute to your mother, Mary.

    I love your family photographs! Well done.

  4. Karen says:

    What a beautiful tribute. This evoked many memories of my own mom and growing up. Such an engaging story. Started my day with a smile and a warm feeling.
    Thank you,

  5. mziskjr says:

    Thanks, everyone. I owe so much to my mother. And Kami, I do have a picture of the flower car. 🙂

  6. rnewman504 says:

    What a wonderful post! Happy Birthday to your mom! 🙂

  7. Ann Malaspina says:

    Wonderful photos and stories! She’s lucky to have you. Thanks for sharing.

    • helennhill says:

      Hi Ann: I hope you are well. I saw in the SCWBI bulletin that you won a grant . . . congratulations.
      – Helen

  8. Judith Land says:

    Thanks for sharing your story…good photos.

  9. dale moyer says:

    Lovely tribute to your lovely Mom.
    Wish her a Happy 99th Birthday for me.

  10. helennhill says:

    Wow! What an inspiring story. I love how the photographs capture the different eras. You really get a sense of the whole person. My Birthday was on the 4th and my sister’s is the 5th. An auspicious time indeed! : )

  11. What a lovely tribute to your mother. May she have many more birthdays! Thanks so much for sharing this Mary.

  12. […] It was my last chance to say yes or no to motherhood. I took the photo to my own mother, who said (as I posted here ) “She just needs a mother to put a smile on her face.” I sent my acceptance paperwork back to […]

  13. […] 99 Years—A Picture of My Mother […]

  14. […] Mary’s mother as a baby, passing with her family through Ellis Island.  From: 99 Years—A Picture of My Mother […]

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