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.
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).
In 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.
Like 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).
Seemingly 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.