Tucked inside an old film camera, my son discovered an undeveloped roll of film. We processed the photographs she never had the chance to see two years after she passed away.
It’s no small task to clean out the home of a deceased relative, let alone your mother who was your primary role model in life. Having lost her to leukemia in 2017 after a brave 10-month fight, and representing her only caretaker, I had a new responsibility to manage after a long-grieving period.
I was responsible for her primary residence and all the contents within it.
I’ll state for the record I didn’t take this for granted and was grateful on many levels, but nonetheless it was a challenge. When your mother spends four decades collecting stuff at garage sales, and then inherits the items her mother and aunt collected in life, it’s a bit daunting.
During this nine-month process, there were two elements in my life that kept me going.
First, my immediate family (Allison my wife and my four-year-old Connor) were supportive in ways I cannot describe. I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel as I moved through the grieving stage.
Second, I had the opportunity to have complete and full closure with my mother. Had I lost her without any warning, I’m sure I would have provided a therapist, or several of them, the means to earn a tidy living. My mother and I settled our differences and kept the demons at bay. We also, in many cases, rediscovered the joy we shared as a mother and son who loved one another without exception during my formative years.
I had regrets in the end; I wished she had walked me through her photography from her trips abroad. I have other things I wished I could have shared with my mom prior to her demise but when I uncovered her photographs from trips to China, Turkey, and northern Italy, my heart skipped a beat.
My family has a long history of adventure and overseas travel. My maternal grandfather served in World War Two, volunteering in the middle of the war at the ripe old age of 37.
My grandmother inherited a small sum of money from her parents in the early sixties, which she did not anticipate. Being a frugal-minded soul who experienced the Great Depression firsthand, she chose the opposite when she received the money—she splurged! She went on to travel the globe and rode camels beside the pyramids in Egypt and explored the orient in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand. Her home was a treasure trove of trinkets and items purchased overseas, but nothing too extravagant (for the record). She even traveled on the boat that was featured in the show, The Love Boat. A globe trotter, from the age of fifty and well into her seventies: that was my grandma.
My mother one-upped her and went to the Galapagos, traveled throughout the entire Middle East, and went Scuba diving in Curacao. She went to 35+ countries and she even worked for the airlines in the sixties so she could travel extensively… and inexpensively. She was able to procure unsold international airfare on the dime and did long weekends in the Netherlands and throughout Europe.
I followed in their footsteps as well and have been to 30+ countries to date, however, finding pictures of my mother in the Forbidden City, in the hills of Lake Como in Italy, and flying in hot-air balloons in Turkey… that was a moment.
It took seven months to clear out her home, separating trash from treasure, discarding clothing and donating/selling the rest, and finding her lost passion: her art. I discovered every single holiday card she received, separated by the sender in a large foldable envelope. I even found every letter she received from boyfriends, some of whom were serving in the army overseas in the 50s and 60s.
I also found a drawer filled with unused cameras, 28mm varieties that she used plus some cheap digital ones. In total, there were ten of them with original packaging, carry bags and wires. By some miracle, the only one I kept was the result of my son plucking it out of the bunch before they were sold off in the estate sale.
And two years, later, we discovered something.
He examined the camera and noted it looked like something was in the back. Sure enough, in the small sliver of transparent plastic, was the distinguishable color of a green roll of Fuji film. During the film days of photography, one either used Fuji film which came in green rolls or Kodak film that was yellow.
My eyes grew wide as I knew what this meant; there was an unprocessed roll of film in the only surviving camera we took from my mother’s residence.
“We need batteries!” I said to my son when I was done hemming and hawing about this discovery. Fortunately, we had the right-sized batteries stashed in our refrigerator. I placed them in the camera and then recalled how these cameras worked. There was a small inlay button one had to press to rewind the film. We counted down, and sure enough, the camera did its job. We were able to procure the unprocessed film from the interior.
I hugged my son and I wondered what story the pictures would tell. I gave thought to the timeframe when they could have been taken: Early 2000s? Mid 2000s? Could these be from the 90s? I could not wait to see.
What I hoped and prayed was to find photographs of my mother and perhaps my grandmother who was 94 when she passed away in 2007. I thought to myself, how amazing would it be to discover unseen family photographs of relatives who have since passed? And sharing this moment with my son?
We dropped them off at a local camera store that represents one of the few that specializes in film equipment and photography. My son snooped around when we entered the establishment. When he grabbed a high-end digital camera, I told him daddy cannot tolerate the pain and anguish he would experience if he had to pay for the ones he broke. He was six at the time and he conducted himself with restraint (thank God!). They said they’d call us when it was available to pick up.
I spent two weeks hoping the film was not ruined from having sat idle in the camera for ten years. Perhaps it was even a longer period of time. My hunch was, based on the design of the camera and its capabilities, that it was from the mid-aughts.
Then I got the call.
I rushed home and when Connor got home from school, we sat at the kitchen counter. I took a deep breath and opened the package.
The first shot:
It was taken sometime in the aughts and during a hike I took with my mother on Mother’s Day. My hunch is it was the year 2004, the year I got married. I recalled the day and it was on the banks of the Hudson River somewhere in Rockland county, south of West Point. I knew the day and the timing as I had pictures of my mom that I took on that same day with my camera at the time. We were the only ones on the rocky outcropping so there was no one there to photograph both of us together.
That was a wonderful day – the last Mother’s Day I spent alone with my mom before we started splitting time between families as a married couple. My wife went to celebrate with her mom. My mother and I enjoyed a small hike, lunch, and time with one another.
We also discovered a precipitous cliff, as you can see in shot #2. How fitting for a family of adventurers! Nothing can stop us! I told my son this and mentioned he is now required to one-up everyone else that came before him, in regards to world travel. I also noted his kids will have to go one step further and travel in space, high above the earth, when they are old enough to do so.
My son shook his head trying to process that request.
Then, further into the stack of twelve pictures were the ones my mom took of my wife shortly before our wedding. I will not share them in this post because at one point, my wife was in the middle of getting her makeup professionally done for the day of our wedding. She’s gorgeous without makeup of course but I thought it best not to share. These other photographs spoke to something else going on in my life.
I was embarking on a new kind of adventure: marriage. The juxtaposition of pictures from the last Mother’s Day I spent with my mom (as a bachelor) with the first day of my marriage completed the circle of family, per se. One generation of love led to another and my wife and I have been happily married for 15 years…
…Except that first year of marriage; we both agreed the first one was a bit of a train wreck. But I love her every year more so compared to the last. That represents another contrast in my life. My parents were married in the late sixties and separated by 1976 when I was six. Their marriage did not stand the tests that come with time, pressure, and patience.
And during this discovery, my son was now six-years-old himself.
Alas, I discovered not a single picture of my mother. But in hindsight, she was the person who operated the camera, so perhaps I was foolish to believe she’d manage to take a selfie. One single picture of my grandmother, however, would have made my day. She moved into my mom’s house in 2005 and enjoyed her last years with her best friend: her daughter, her loving caretaker, my mom.
This provided a wonderful experience to share with my son, given the memories he has of my mom will likely fade over time. If you find an opportunity to pass on these kinds of experiences to your children, embrace the moment.
There is nothing more special than savoring sweet and loving memories of loved ones with those you can still embrace and love yourself.
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