My first home was the warmth of my mother’s arms wrapped around my six pound, thirteen-ounce body. Pink and swollen, I learned the smell of her neck and familiar crooks of her collarbone as she nursed me in the blur of three a.m. She attuned to the sound of my cries and I memorized the beat of her heart. Those first three months together must have been awfully bittersweet for my mother—bitter, because of the ache left by an absent husband—sweet, because of the heart swells of getting to know her new baby.
For many hard and complicated reasons, my parents divorced when I was three months old. This is our story.
My second home waited for me across the country, at the end of an eighteen-hour drive through the night. With all of her belongings strapped to the top of the Olds and a colicky newborn cozied in the car seat, my mother fled to Minnesota to the house where she grew up. I was too young to remember it, but I imagine her smile when she first crossed the border and saw the “Minnesota Welcomes You” sign. I also imagine the tears and flushed cheeks as she pulled into my grandparents’ driveway, where they waited for us beneath the porch light. It was April, and I bet you anything it was raining. Life on Bapa and Gma’s farm meant nightly lullabies from my grandma, kitchen sink baths, and afternoon naps with my prickly-bearded, farmer grandfather who smelled like chewing tobacco and Old Spice shampoo.
After a year on the farm, we moved to our third home together, a small split level on the south end of town. It was the perfect size for two—just my mom and me—and that’s how it was for three years. I remember dragging my “Tata” blanket along the living room floor. I remember my pink and purple bed. I remember Saturday morning cartoons with my sippie-cup filled with apple juice and my Pomeranian Shasta snuggled by my side. This is the home I had to continually leave and come back to—one, two, three week visits at a time, to my birth father a thousand miles away. I wonder if my mother knew that, even then, I didn’t want to leave her and I was sorry that I had to. I sometimes wonder how quiet that house must have been when I was away. I wonder if she watched Blue’s Clues even when I wasn’t home and if she ever fell asleep in my little bed next to Tata and Pooh Bear. She’s told me those were the most impossibly difficult three years of her life—impossible to send her toddler away to someone who was almost a stranger, impossible to bear through the anxiety attacks and fear, impossible to do it alone.
I don’t have many photographs of my mother and me during this precious, painful time in our lives, and I wish I did. I don’t have a way to remember my first three homes, beyond the stories I’ve been told. That’s the reason I’m sharing my story now. I cannot communicate how valuable those images would be to me—images of just the two of us, when our time together was hard and gritty, but also sweet, sacred, and only ours.
This mama of mine was so brave, to send her preschooler on a plane to fly unaccompanied across the country. She was so strong, to be a single mother day in and day out. She was tenacious, to pour out limitless love to me even when she was sick, exhausted, and lacked support. I wish I had images that illustrated her bravery, strength, and endless love. I wish I had photographs that encompassed the closeness and weight of our relationship in those beginning years. The images that I do have? They are priceless. My love for my mom—and the love I know she has for me—is something I only can dream of being embodied in a photograph.
When photographing families for the past six years, I have aimed to capture memories for the clients who hire me—the parents, grandparents, and single moms—so that, when their children are grown, they can look back at their itty-bitty ones and remember them how they once were. While that remains infinitely important, I want to shift my focus now to creating photographs for my clients’ children. I want to photograph families in such a way that when the kids are grown, they can look back on their childhood images and never once doubt that they were and are extraordinarily loved.
I would give anything to have a photograph of my mother and me when it was just us, when the pain was excruciating and the love was astronomical. I would do anything for an image that encompassed the enormity of her love for me, and my love for her. That’s why I photograph mothers and their children—for the single moms who struggle to give their children the best life they can, but even more so, for the little ones whom they carry and fight for, with love, each day.
So, every mother reading this, hear my plea—
Don’t put off taking family photographs because you want to lose the extra ten pounds, or you want your house to be perfectly furnished and decorated. Don’t wait until the weather is nicer, or you’re happier, or less busy. These moments and years are important, irreplaceable, and your children will want to remember them. They will want to see your unconditional love for them and hold in their hands the stories and memories of the first places they called home.