Mom's house from the back

A Repository for Memories: My Mother’s House

When growing up, it’s often common to think of your parents’ house as “Home.” Somewhere you can always go back to, somewhere that should always be a safe place. My mother’s house was that for me as much as I was able to have that, and over the years I’ve been in and out of that house so many times, living there as well as just visiting. And through it all I’ve had my camera(s) with me, documenting the process.  When I was young I remember looking through picture albums with one of my parents and them telling me stories or just reminiscing about certain events. I find that in my own life, the more I photograph something the better I can remember it later, whether it’s a space, a time, or an event: my friends’ houses, getting together for barbeques and whisky tastings, my bedrooms over the years, birthday parties, my times in COVID quarantine, and yes, my mother and her house. Over the years these all provided good fodder for my cameras.

View from the couch
The view from the couch–Nikon F2, Ilford HP5+

And whatever cameras I accumulated over the years, those eventually found their way Home at some point, and if I didn’t end up using them anymore they ended up in a closet or later in my mom’s garage, until I brought them down to sell them all at my local camera store. I was forced into this more than anything else, due to a lack of space, and because my mom’s house ceased to be Home after she died a little over a year ago–my brother and I couldn’t make the numbers work to keep it.

The majority of my books & CDs that were living in my mom’s garage–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X

The last few months I was there are what I’ll most remember now: spending my birthday looking for my mother’s will and breaking the bad news to her upstairs renters, living there alone while we figured out what we could do with the place or preparing to sell it, sleeping in her bed, watching movies on her TV, all the categorizing, cleanup, etc. In a sense these aren’t really the memories I wanted to keep but they’re what I have, and perhaps the biggest part of that are the pictures I took while I was there.

Our renters left their door open
Her renters were out when I got there but they had left the door ajar–Nikon F, Ilford XP2 Super
My mom's kitchen
Washing the dirty dishes left behind–Nikon F, Ilford XP2 Super
My mom's bedside table
Her bedside table–Nikon F, Ilford XP2 Super

My mother succumbed to COVID very quickly after she contracted it; ironic considering how much she complained about the ridiculousness of the whole situation over the last two years.  From cancelling Thanksgiving dinner to going to the hospital to the confused information my family got from that, to seeing her for the last time, to putting her under sedation to try intubation, to pulling the plug: less than two weeks.  I don’t have any hospital pictures and don’t miss not having them, but as soon as I was at her house for the first time in months the pictures started coming.

My jackets, her jackets
My jackets, her jackets–Nikon F2, Kodak T-Max P3200
Her bedroom when I started to take it over–Nikon F2A, Ilford HP5+
Me starting to take over the closet as well–Nikon F2A, Ilford HP5+
My scanner set up in the office–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
A friend helping me pack
A friend helping me pack–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
Some friends helping us pack
Some friends helping us pack–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
Taking pictures during the move really helped me cope–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
Some of the wonderful people that helped out on moving day–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X

From the way that she left the house to the places that I spend the most time in, to the view that I always had whenever I sat on the couch: all the times I was alone there.  And then there were all the people that helped my brother’s and my collective family during that time, all my boxes that were stored in her garage, the grand moving day, and all the empty space after most of the furniture was gone and the house was ready to put on the market, and the times during the Winter when it snowed and I had to shovel the driveway, just walking around the place during blizzards trying to capture the perfect snow pictures of the house.  That stuff is all there but when I go back through the pictures there were more mundane things in the moment, evocative of a longer time spent in that particular place:

The tea–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
The seat never stayed on properly–Minolta SRT-MCII, Ilford XP2 Super
Ase (my scanner didn’t like this frame)–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
Vanishing water drops–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
Many angles to judge myself–Nikon F2, Kodak Tri-X
A lot of boxes from things I bought–Nikon F2, Ilford XP2 Super

The way I’d use the folding bathroom mirror to cut my hair and look from different angles.  The way that I’d bake something in the oven and there was always that one spot where the condensation would accumulate and then drip off the door when I opened it–I tried to take a picture of that and it was the one time that it didn’t happen.  And the boxes of tea that she got me that last Christmas, that I really didn’t want so I left them behind and then when I was up there I used them all up in a few months.  The spots in her shower that for some reason in 2009 reminded me of Åse from Peer Gynt–I told her to never clear that off and she never did.  I’d forgotten about those instances sometime after I took the pictures but finding them again brings it all flooding back.

Mom at Christmas, 2019–Canon AF35MII, Kodak Tri-X

I went back through my photo archive to find the last picture I took of my mom and it was a full five months before her death, part of her birthday celebrations where my brother, our friend and I took her ziplining. I suppose that I thought (as we all do in the moment) that there will always be plenty of time to take pictures later, another time.  If you’re reading this, maybe rethink that.  Tell your parents you love them, take their pictures, make something you’ll be proud to hold onto.  I made sure to do that with her house to capture as much of her imbued spirit as I could, because I missed my last chance with her while she was alive.  After all is said and done all that will be left behind us will be the pictures, and the memories associated with them. And that’s what I will remember about what used to be Home.

The loss of Home: thanks to my sister-in-law Beth for holding the camera for this one–Nikon F2, Ilford XP2 Super

Technical notes: I have many cameras, the ones I’m using at the moment are featured here: Nikon F2 (unmetered), Nikon F2A, Nikon F Apollo (unmetered) (plus a couple minor ones thrown in: Minolta SRT-MCII, Canon AF35MII).  Primary lens was an AI’d Nikkor K-series 35mm f/1.4, with a little bit of AI’d Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 and AI-s Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 (plus the Minolta MD 50mm f/1.4 for one shot).  I shot a few different film stocks around that time: Kodak Tri-X 400, Ilford XP2 Super, Ilford HP5+, Kodak T-Max P3200, expired Kodak BW400CN.  Scanned/finished by myself using the Pakon F335 and Affinity Photo.

You can find me at The Resurrected Camera or for strictly photo project work, my Instagram: @thefamouspdog.

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About The Author

9 thoughts on “A Repository for Memories: My Mother’s House”

  1. A very moving account my friend
    I know how you feel – my dad passed away in December 21 and now the house has been sold. It’ll always be home and in my heart – it’s where I grew up and lived for most of my life.

    Thanks for sharing

  2. Commiserations.
    My dad died at the end of last year and me and my siblings have been clearing his house. We moved in when I was two weeks old over 60 years ago. Lots of stuff, lots of memories. Very strange to see the place emptying out.

  3. Great article on Mother’s Day. I too have lived through the passing of my parents. Making great memories is what it’s all about and film photography is a great way to do that. Something to cherish and hold (close to your heart). I have found negatives from their youth that I sometime print in the darkroom and the memories live on. Happy Mother’s Day !

  4. Joseph, Thanks for sharing such a personal story that connects with so many of us. I guess this is something many of us have done as we navigate the circumstances of life. I photographed both my mom and mother-in-law over the years. In 2001 when my mother-in-law passed away after a short but intense battle with pancreatic cancer I spent days photographing her house as she left it. We lived just next door so the emptiness that we felt seemed overwhelming at points. I’m so glad I have those 4×6 prints to hold and look at as I remember wonderful times spent at her house.

    I second your statement about not waiting for the right moment to photograph your parents. We just don’t know when that last chance will come. I highly recommend the photography book “Leaving and Waving” by Deanna Dikeman. It will inspire and touch your heart. My best to you in your journey.

  5. Castelli Daniel

    Toughest job a child must do. For those of us who have done this, we understand fully.
    Best of luck.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story.

    I read this and memories of my mother came flooding back. I always wanted to give her a proper portrait session with my Mamiya RZ67 but the BS of life and it’s distractions took hold. I never did it and she left this world. This is one of my regrets.

    Photograph the people who are important to you because all of our time here is finite.

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