I lost my mother to Covid-19 on January 29th, 2021, just two days after her seventy-third birthday. Apart from the obvious complications of holding a funeral in the middle of a raging global pandemic, there was also the matter of traveling nearly 400 miles from our home in North Carolina to my hometown in Pennsylvania for the service.
We packed quickly and light, but as a photographer something in me instinctively grabbed a camera and film for the journey. I wanted something simple – something I didn’t have to think too hard about. Something that I could just throw on aperture priority and document the moment.
I reached for a camera that had only just arrived in the mail the week before – a new (to me) Leica R8 with a 35mm Elmarit-R f2.8 prime lens. I hadn’t even fired off a frame before loading it with some Delta 400 and throwing it in the bag. A glutton for punishment, I also packed a box of Kodak Pro Image 100 that I had never tried.
Somewhere around Washington DC we found ourselves driving through snow. Having grown up in a state where snow is fairly commonplace, I barely paid attention, but my girls (6, 8 and 9 years old) were completely enthralled. They had rarely, if ever seen that much snow. When we got to the hotel they wanted nothing more than to run, woefully underdressed, into a snow drift. I was tired and grieving and I just wanted to check into our room and go to bed. In retrospect, they deserve a medal for patience.
With Covid restrictions in place, we spent most of the first day in the hotel. My girls were troopers and got right to work on their remote schoolwork. I finally had some time to relax and I got the R8 out of the bag to investigate. I shot a few pictures of the girls in virtual class just to try the exposure modes out, and looking back at those frames now the strain on everyone was evident. The film choice even seemed to fit the mood.
I promised that after I had finished attending to the details of the funeral and they had completed their schoolwork, we would drive to the nearest park to play in the snow. We finally set out in the late afternoon and it turned out to be the emotional release we all needed. As the girls climbed snow banks, rolled in drifts, and threw snowballs at one another I took a deep breath and slowly worked through that black and white film. When I reached back in my bag my hand passed over the other roll of Delta 400 and I grabbed a roll of the Kodak Pro Image 100.
It was the only color film I had on hand on such short notice and I have to say now that I’ll probably never shoot it again. I’ve heard good things about this film, and I’ll concede that my results may have been due to a home-development issue or user error, but I didn’t like how the negatives came out or how it scanned. I had to go through all sorts of contortions to rid it of a yellow cast and get the colors the way I wanted them. Whatever the cause, these particular rolls of film fought me all the way to a finished image. Strangely though, now that I look back at these images months later, they do seem to capture the moment as it was.
These few frames are not great art, but they’re true, and that’s something. They remind me that I don’t only take photographs to remember the facts of my life, but also as a way of capturing my feelings for later. Photographs are the preparatory acts of nostalgia and I will never forget the turmoil and joy of those moments. Even the “not-quite-right” colors seem to mirror the deeper struggles of the heart.
The next day, after the funeral, we borrowed some sleds from a cousin and went back to the same park. That may sound heartless, but as a coping mechanism it did the job. For me, it reminded me of all the winters of my youth, and snowy mornings spent barreling down a hill on a sled until I was so cold and wet that I had no choice but to go inside where my mom would inevitably be waiting with hot cocoa at the ready. It also helped me bridge those long lost days with the mixed blessing of the present moment. To share one of the joys of my youth with my own children who were unaccustomed to snow, and for whom hills are few and far between. Sorrow, exhaustion, joy, and memory mingled seamlessly, and I did my best to capture a fraction of that with my camera. As the day ended, I snapped the last few frames as we carried our sleds back up the hill in the blue light of evening. Whatever we had just been through together, we had survived – from graveside to snow-covered hillside. It felt as if we had stolen a moment of joy, and I know my mother would have been happy about that.
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