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November 16, 2009

Photographs, memories, and field of vision

M3 Being a mom, I take a lot of pictures of my boys: silly boys, handsome boys, costumed boys. Living in the desert Southwest, I take a lot of nature photos: spectacular sunsets, fascinating critters, pretty flowers. Loving to travel, I take a lot of tourist shots: churches, statues, quaint streets. I spent a day last week in my mother's house, taking a different kind of photograph: a catalog of jewelry, rugs, and artwork.  I didn't take those photos for insurance purposes (which is a good idea if you have valuable possessions), but to help my mother decide how she wants things to be divided upon her death.

For the last 20 years, every significant purchase that Mother has made has been accompanied by I want you to have this when I'm gone. Or You're going to get that one, so this one goes to your sister.  Or Your sister will be mad, but this is for you. Or You already have one so she should get this one. Since the inheritance allocation usually changes every time my mother talks about it, Jane and I have rolled our eyes and said, together and separately, Whatever you want (while thinking simply WhatEVer!).

But our mother's days are numbered now by ovarian cancer. The task of dividing her belongings is no longer an eventuality to think about some day, but is something to dread having to do too soon.  Both my sister and I have been urging Mother to write things down so that everything is clear-cut.  We both know families that have been torn apart by grasping relatives who want want want, and our own father wrote the most vicious and intentionally divisive will either of us could imagine. 

Mother has resisted writing things down (because she, too, wants to escape the reality that is facing her), saying, Oh you two will work it all out. You're good girls who will take care of each other. I tried explaining to her that she was right, we would make sure that the distribution is financially equitable, but that money and value would not be the issue between my sister and me. We'll get upset over the little things that have no monetary value whatsoever, like the donkey our grandfather gave Mother when she was just 5 years old or the framed collage of photos of Jane, Lawrence (our brother, who died a few years ago), and me.  Jane put it best: We are each going to want 70% of your things, because they're YOUR things. But we'll both be good and settle for 60%. 

That, my mother finally heard. So I went to her house last week and methodically photographed a lifetime of treasures collected from around the world. The things are so familiar to me that I hardly see them anymore when I visit her, but each item has a story, each item is a memory. Some of the stories I know by heart from hearing while I was growing up.  She bought the lithograph over the stereo when I was a little girl; she'd asked my father to buy it and he said that if he went to the exhibit and knew which one she wanted, he would get it for her.  It's been in her house for over 45 years. Some of the memories are mine as well, because I was there when she bought them. We stood in the gift shop at the Petrified National Forest for 25 minutes while she tried to decide which miniature Hopi pot to buy. (The one in the middle of the photo is about the size of a 50-cent piece.) They were exquisitely crafted but very expensive, so she struggled to choose which one to bring home.  My sister will be getting all three of them when it's time.  (But that's okay, because I get the three micaceous miniatures ... it all balances out.)

I left my mother with 50 pages of printed photos to sort through and mark, so she could label each treasure, each memory for her children and grandchildren. The act of zooming in on those memories made me realize that so much in my life has become so familiar that I don't see it anymore.  In photography, the field of vision is the area of the photograph that is most in focus.  Most general photos have a very broad field of vision, so that everything is in equal focus and everything gets equal attention.  Nature photography -- close-ups of small animals and flowers -- generally uses a very narrow field of vision: The outer area of the image is blurry, but the subject is in clear focus, allowing us to appreciate the texture of the petal, the details of the feathers.

I found myself wishing that I could automatically adjust my personal field of vision as needed to call attention to the treasures in my life that are so familiar to me that I no longer see them: my 7YO's sense of humor, my 11YO's design ability, the easy friendship my boys have with their much older cousins.  And I know that with my very broad default field of vision, which sees everything equally, I am missing texture and details that would help me better understand these boys whom I treasure so much.

An original piece for 50-Something Moms by Alicia, who usually writes and posts photos at Forever Changed.

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