I’d like to say I’m not sure why I keep this picture that I took of Harold Ramis taped to my desk, but I am sure. He volunteered for the Possible Dreams Auction on Martha’s Vineyard and so did I. He quietly worked the crowd and I quietly took pictures. He had a constant, gentle smile and he seemed to really love his wife, who always sat in the sea of people and waited for him. He was one-of-a-kind.
The decision was made with both the discipline of careful calculation and the snap of emotion. My husband and I had two children, one by birth and one by adoption, and yet we grappled; did we want to try our hand at adoption again? Even though accomplishing one adoption was overwhelming, the experience that we gained surely would make the next time around less daunting. The real question was, “Did we want a third child?” Our logical selves debated with our emotional selves. After going round and round, we decided to take two weeks with the question in our heads separately and then come back together to meld our thoughts. After one week I said to him, “I can’t wait to hear which way you’re leaning.” He shrugged and said something about the decision being an easy one. All I could do was smile.
Feeling the confidence that an already full house can bring, we boldly put a letter in our Christmas card that year and sent it out to everyone we knew. We encouraged them to give the letter to everyone they knew. The letter was short and sweet and included lots of pictures of our two little boys and all of us together. The pictures even showed our adorable dog and cat, both of which were brought into our family while we waited for our first adoption to materialize. Unlike our first adoption, which was a rollercoaster of starts and stops (“they picked you” … “oh, sorry, no they didn’t” … “a baby is being born this weekend” … “the baby went to relatives”) our Christmas card letter easily found its way into the hands of a very young and pregnant woman in Iowa. She was interested in an open adoption, as were we. Since we were coming into 1994 and openness was a little rare, we easily became a match made in heaven.
Her name was Melissa and her baby would be born in Iowa, four months hence. The waiting period this time was much more comfortable. I didn’t bring home a cat from a shelter or a dog from a parking lot. I painted our extra room a pretty shade of blue and wrote letters to Melissa, sending her lots of pictures. I talked to the birth mother of our first adopted son, to see if she would be willing to send Melissa a letter to reassure her that we firmly believed in openness. I sent her books on prenatal nutrition and childbirth as well as some other books that I had read myself at her young age. I told my little boys that I was going to have to take a trip and we got a room set up for them at their Grandma’s house. I worked hard at holding my emotions, yet at times I danced around the house and sang out loud, “There’s an angel floating round my house ..” I wrote letters to Melissa with big letters saying, “I CAN’T WAIT TO MEET OUR BABY!”
When she called one evening and said, “I hope you still want to adopt my baby,” I held back tears and assured her that she could count on us forever. When she called the next day and told us the time had come, we became a well-oiled machine. We dropped the boys off and drove the truck faster than ever. Stopping only once for gas we were a little rude to the nice attendant who wanted to check our oil.
Even though it was February in Iowa, I rolled down the windows and stared at all of those stars that seemed to twinkle for us. I had never seen the beauty of Iowa. We drove through a tiny town with the tiny name of “Nora” and I unilaterally decided that we would name the baby Nora. After all, we were due for a girl in the house.
Arriving in the quiet-of-the-night parking lot in the-middle-of-nowhere Iowa we left our prepacked bags in the truck and ran through the entrance doors. We found our way to the maternity waiting room where Melissa’s father and brothers waited for us. They quietly shook our hands and seemed relieved at our arrival. Melissa’s mother was with Melissa and I immediately joined them, leaving my husband with her family. She looked older than her years and her mother seemed nervous and shaken. My confidence vaporized and the enormity of the situation made me tremble inside. The doctor and nurses had been prepped on the story and their kindness welcomed me. I drank in the scene, which to this day is incredible in my mind … her fingers were long and beautiful, her hair was thick and straight, her face was long and her nose was perfect … her mother wore jeans and she wore a flannel nightgown … they were in sync with each other.
When the baby was imminent they sent word for my husband. He and his presence seemed awkward but soon the room was full of more nurses and the only thing I remember was the doctor saying, “You have another beautiful boy.” At that moment, and in some ways, Melissa had become a child of mine. I hugged her and kissed her and assured her that her own childhood could continue on course, that I would always have her back and that we had one common goal; the beautiful life of this beautiful baby. This baby who was born with long fingers, a long face and a perfect nose.
Unlike the big, suburban, new age hospital where our other boys had been born, the little hospital in Iowa was perfectly comfortable with an open adoption. In fact, they gave me a hospital room close to Melissa’s and we “shared” our baby. Waves of aunts and uncles and grandma’s visited both rooms. Some challenged me to confirm my intentions and some sensed that everything was going to be all right. One scene that I’ll always remember was when my new baby’s great grandmother held him and told him that he was extraordinarily special and that he would have a wonderful life. Melissa’s family was strong and proud, and one of their recurring observations emanated from that; this baby would be the first person in their family for generations who would be leaving Iowa.
About 24 hours after our baby was born Melissa brought up the issue of naming him. I had some traditional names in my mind (though I realized that “Nora” was out) and she had her mind set on trendy ones. She went through her list and when she said, “What about Alex?” I jumped. Alex is the name of a favorite cousin, so it represented an ideal opportunity to welcome this little boy into our family in a unique way. Perfect.
Two nights after Alex was born we left the hospital. We had already said our goodbyes to Melissa and her family. My husband and I were alone with our new baby for the first time; walking out to the same quiet-of-the-night parking lot where we left the car when we arrived. We nestled him into his car seat and left the state of Iowa with a newly defined sense of hurriedness. We couldn’t wait for him to meet his brothers. “Three boys,” I remember thinking as I rolled down the window once more to say goodbye to those still twinkling stars of Iowa.
When we got home, I was immediately struck with the notion that my house was finally as full as my wildest dreams. The dog and cat were smelling everything new. When night fell again, my husband and I struggled to get three little boys, which added up to two very excited toddlers and a newborn, down to sleep. I felt more alive than ever, and I couldn’t wait to write a letter to Melissa. I picked out my prettiest stationery, pulled out a pen and began to write. Without thinking I set down the pen and picked up the phone. Melissa answered before the end of the first ring and we talked into the night.
Traveling with a group of Barrington High School students on a photography field trip to Chicago is a challenge I accept every chance I get. Barrington High School is one of the last hold outs for teaching film photography, leaving me to wonder if these kids really understand that they are surely the last generation to learn this art. It appeared they fully appreciated being in a very ecelectic area of Chicago called Bucktown, being with close friends (photography breeds camaraderie) and being with two of the coolest photography teachers to ever walk the earth (Mr. Dionesotes “Mr. D.” and Ms. Hargreaves “H”).
The student’s photographs won’t be ready for weeks, as the craft of film development is deliberate and the most beautiful creations take time. So, while I’d love to show those to you, I can only show you mine, which were created digitally. Here they are along with the assignment:
“Remember that no matter how stable or how fleeting your subject matter, it’s the final print that counts, so envision that print when you look through your viewfinder. Shoot to make a minimum of 35 printable negatives. Frame with clear intention; respect people and private property; represent your school well; make pictures with grace and intelligence.
You are on a scavenger hunt in that you are required not only to find subject matter in each of the following categories, but also to use it creatively in your arrangements of subject matter within the frames and your awareness of light.”
l. Slivers of Light
2. Adjacent structures 100 years apart
3. People dressed alike
4. Neighborhood surprises
And, my favorite, why is Bucktown called Bucktown? The answer: At the turn of the century, Bucktown was a farming community and Bucktown takes its name from the goats that roamed its streets at that time. Here are a couple of pictures of a beautiful fountain in a park, surrounded by heads of goats:
Attending the funeral of one of my favorite aunts, the last of her generation, also provided the opportunity to visit an historic cemetery where generations of my immigrant German family are memorialized.
St. Mary’s Cemetery belongs to Old St. Mary’s Church in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. Old St Mary’s Church was home to many of Cincinnati’s large German population. Many of Cincinnati’s oldest German families are buried in this cemetery and many of the old stones are written in German.
The statues on these graves scrape the sky but pale in comparison to the stories that my family has passed on about the trials and tribulations of coming to this country and what their life was like.
Here are the photographs …
I suspected that my recent visit to see her would be the final one. I was right. The last of a generation of von Goebens passed away today. I’ve known my Aunt Jeanne since I was a little girl and I just loved her. She collected antiques and dressed with style. She was calm, cool and collected. She had an open door policy. She always took the high road.
When I visited her in February, in her little apartment in Cincinnati, she had whittled her possessions down to the most important, and she kept quite a collection of family pictures. They were treasures to her. We sat in her living room and poured over them, laughing and remembering all the von Goebens whom we have loved.
I used my iphone to take some shots of the old pictures we looked through. And as of today, these pictures have now become my own treasures.
Bye Aunt Jeanne. I love you.
Camp Edwards. East Troy, Wisconsin. January 5, 2012. Jason’s Last Big Party … saying goodbye to a friend. Jason Royal. 26 years old. Counselor for 6 years. Waterfront Director. From England. Member of the secret tribe of Nani Ba Zhu. The main lodge was filled to the brim with campers and counselors and parents, and this is a photo essay of that day. “To live in the lives that come after us is not to die.” Camp Edwards’ Motto.
2012 was a fast year and a slow year and one full of love. I photographed some weddings, lots of little kids, one big open water swim across the Catalina Channel and fell head over heals for rescue dogs. Plus I got some great shots of my own family. Hope you enjoy these and here’s to 2013. Hope it’s a fast year and a slow year and one equally full of love.
Looking for a volunteer project that involves photography is usually easy but I was looking for something different. Something that would be fun but would also have, perhaps, a meaningful and immediate impact.
I thought about what had touched my own life this year. My kids were getting older, leaving the nest, and my two rescue dogs had brought such joy into our house. Saving a dog was something I had never done before and the whole experience was awesome. So the volunteer project took focus.
One by one I took my kids and my friends up to a little town called Huntley, Illinois where there is a little shelter called Animal House Shelter. (www.animalhouseshelter.com) No one even felt like they were volunteering, it was all fun. Driving through the countryside, eating cider donuts and drinking hot chocolate and then arriving at a pretty little red barn and playing with the dogs.
There were all kinds of dogs. Purebreds as well as mutts. Big ones and little ones. Cute ones and funny looking ones. Some were shy and some were outgoing. They all had one thing in common. They were friendly and sweet and affectionate. It was as if they knew they had one chance to look their best so that they might become ours.
The ride home in the car was a little quieter. We talked about which dogs we liked the most and we wondered if what we were doing would make a difference. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve and, so far, this project has helped six dogs find homes for the holidays.
Animal House Shelter, located in Huntley, Illinois, is open every day of the year from 11am till 7pm. Even on Christmas. And even on Christmas Eve.
And if you want to volunteer with us going forward just give us a call … because this project isn’t over yet.