If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from inside a Senior Living Community
It was one of those days in April where gray clouds billowed in the sky, but the sun was trying its hardest to poke through. I pulled up to the Senior Living community with my camera, tripod and lighting kit in hand, ready to photograph 11 complete strangers.
With the help of the fabulous activities coordinator, we were able to offer a "Mother's Day Glamour Shot Session" to any woman who wanted it. The goal was to take portraits of the seniors and print out, 2- 5x7 prints, so they could give them to their daughters, friends or family at the Mother's Day Tea, hosted at the Senior living home.
Eleven women signed up to have their pictures taken. And for all the cliches there are, in the world, this one rings true..
We met as strangers and left as friends.
In the 20-minutes I had with each woman, I learned more than I ever could have bargained for.
The most surprising thing I learned... most of these women didn't want the photos for Mother's Day at all...
One thin, tall woman, covered in a bright purple boa with a purple-feathered headband and matching eye make-up told me, "I just wanted to feel better. I cried a lot this week. And I thought, this would make me feel better." Marian is in her 90s and confidently recited her Alzheimer's words to me as I snapped photos.
"Apple, cat, pencil.."
She told me, as long as she could remember those words, she was in good shape. I followed her to her room where she showed me an old photo of her dashing husband, who died 17 years earlier.
Marian had no trouble re-calling memories of him.
She told me her mother never went to their wedding because her mom thought he was too old for Marian.
On their 55th wedding anniversary, Marian's husband was extremely sick. Still, they celebrated on the couch with their favorite take-out Chinese food. Marian said to her husband, "They thought we'd never make it...Look at us. So hey! Ya wanna get a divorce now?!" They laughed and 11 days later, he passed away.
Her advice, "Be joyful," and to remember "You have been blessed so you can be a blessing to others."
One woman flat out told me, "These pictures are for my funeral."
Ruth wore a decadent dress. She came to the photoshoot straight from the community's hair salon. Her short, white-bob laid perfectly around her face. She wore a gorgeous emerald and gold ring on her left hand. In her thick, Vermont accent, she told me she wanted to be photographed on her antique sofa in her living room. So down the hall we went.
Mind you, I had a "studio" set up in the 2nd floor library and a spot outside by the roses to take the photographs...
But more often then not, these women were inviting me into their rooms so they could share the pieces of their life with me. Mostly in the form of pictures on the walls of children and grandchildren, or art work, or knick-knack collections or furniture. In this case, it was a beautiful antique couch.
Ruth said the couch was actually the "salesman sell," meaning, salesman would use the couch to show customers the quality and style of furniture they sold. She bought it from an antique store decades later.
As I sat there fixing a stray hair on her head or readjusting her dress, Ruth was not shy to tell me these pictures were for her funeral. I'll admit it was surprising to hear, but I appreciated her honesty and was humbled by the opportunity to take photos that clearly meant so much to her.
Before I left her room, Ruth told me to "Spend as much time together as a family as you can. Don't take it for granted." She teared up, I gave her a tight hug then left her alone with her antique couch.
Nancy is an 83-year old, born and bred Texan who owned 130-acre cattle ranch with her husband. She has a Southern charm that makes anything she says sound polite. She recently discovered her "green thumb" and was helping fellow residents keep their plants alive.
During our photoshoot, she told me, she asked her husband on his death bed, if he had any regrets.
"He said 'No.' Well... he did have two regrets. He wished we would have met sooner and he wished we would have owned more land, hahaha. I just thought, 'How wonderful, at 79 years old, he has no regrets.'"
Carolyn told me she had no children, her husband had passed and these glamour shot pictures were just for her. Oh, and she loves ice cream.
I knocked on the door of Audrey Henderson to find her still in her pajamas. She invited me in to help her figure out what to wear. I laughed to myself at the openness and honesty of these women. Nothing to hide. They had been there, done that, years before I was even born. I admired them.
We picked out a blouse, threw on some rouge and red lipstick, combed her hair and headed out the door. She kept her slippers on.
Audrey's spirit emanated through her smile. She was the only one who made a funny face at the camera.
She told me, "Have the Lord in your life and you'll get through it," and "Don't look at the bad... look up."
Right after we said goodbye, I jotted down in my notes.. "Audrey--- sweet, sweet soul and loves her pajamas."
I'll leave you with Lillian...
A 93-year old, tiny Italian woman who shares my love of horror movies. She doesn't look a day over 65.
She lived in New York nearly all her life and loves a good pizza (we also have that in common). She bikes 20 minutes every day and reads Stephen King novels.
When I asked her for some life advice she said, " Be honest and live a good life."
Here are some other favorite pieces of advice:
"Live the day," from a smiling, colorful (in clothes and in personality) woman named Barbara.
Or the simple reminder, "Be nice to people," from a proud grandmother named Janet.
Or, "There's good and bad in everything." This from a short, white-haired woman named Edith, in a beautiful blue top, who said she hadn't had her picture taken in 8 or 9 years.
When I left the Senior Living home that day, I couldn't help but think.."Man oh man, if these walls could talk, think of all the stories they could tell. Stories of these remarkable women (and men) who have lived such rich lives.
I figured Mother's Day was the perfect time to share advice from some of these wise women- some mothers, some not.
From my short amount of time with these welcoming and kind women, I learned...
We all live such distinct, different and unique lives, but one thing all our stories have in common is our ability to love. Whether it's love for pajamas, pizza, gardening, antique furniture or your spouse of 55 years... we all have love to give.
This Mother's Day, I hope you sit down with your own mom, grandmothers, aunts... and ask them for some life advice. I guarantee you'll get more than you bargained for.
Happy Mother's Day.
Love you Mom!