One day I got home after a heavy snowfall of about 16 inches. I had noticed my neighbor, who I had never met, had not shoveled her walk yet. I had seen her once or twice peeking through the window and I could see that she was over 70. I grabbed a shovel and just thought I would clear it quick and just feel good for doing it. I was about half way done when the door opened and this little old lady stuck her head out the door, I introduced myself and told her I moved in next door a little bit ago we chatted for about ten minutes. She asked why I was doing it. “I just felt like it was a nice thing to do”. Can I pay you she asked? “Nope I don’t want any money I just wanted to do something nice.” I said with a smile and thought that would be the end of the payment discussion.
“ You’re going to make me cry you have to let me give you something.” She pursed her lips for a second in deep thought. “Can I bake you some cookies or brownies?” I could see that she clearly just wanted to return the favor, and it was a while since I had some great homemade treats. I told her brownies would be great, and I was heading to Boston the next day but I could stop in on Sunday. Little did I know this chance meeting would help me very much over the next few weeks.
I showed up with my camera bag and knocked on her door in the afternoon. She invited me in and asked if I wanted some tea, and she gave me a big tin of brownies. As she whipped around her kitchen we started talking and she told me all about herself and her story of her children and grandchildren then she told me she was 89 years old. She was full of life and was remembering dates and specific things from days 40 years ago. I was amazed.
My tea was ready and she went to her china set and grabbed what looked to be the best set in the hutch. And she placed it in front of me very meticulously. She asked if I wanted anything else and I said I wanted to try one of the brownies she made. I took one bite and was amazed these were some great brownies! It was a bit over cast outside, the setting, colors of her china and the brownies were great . I took out my camera and shot one or two frames.
So I started to tell her my story and that I was a photographer and I asked her if I could take her picture. “NO! My hair is a mess and I will break your camera!” I told her she looked great and I shoot in a real life style but still got a no. “You will waste all your money on that film” she exclaimed. I smiled and said there is no film, and that I just loaded them onto my computer. She told me she did not have a computer and didn’t understand any of those “whosy whatzits”. It seemed as though all the talk of technology brought her spirits down a bit so I quickly changed the subject and put my camera away.
She began to tell me about her life living in Milford and that she had lived in her house all of her life, she bought the house from her Father. Which just seemed so interesting to me as I have lived in five different states and probably three times as many cities. As the conversation went on I could just see how she lit up as she talked about her life her children and grandchildren.
I finished my tea, she asked if I wanted some more I said sure as the conversation was very interesting. It reminded me so much of afternoons spent with my Great Aunt and Grandparents, where I would just stop in and talk for hours to them as they all lived alone after they had lost their spouses. They would just love to have some company every once in a while and wanted to find out what you were doing and such. Now years later I regret not taking more time than I did stopping in and now living a long ways from my family now I can only go back occasionally. Things like that you only seem to realize when it is too late. I stayed for a second cup of tea and some more conversation. I thanked her for the brownies and I told her I would bring her tin back her tin she had packaged the brownies in.
So three days later I stopped back with her tin and I had my camera bag in tow hoping she would say yes to being photographed. I rang her bell and waited patiently and then I knocked not knowing if the bell worked I heard the tv on so I thought she was home. I went to the front door rang the bell and knocked after a few minutes I went back to my house and thought she must not have been home even though it struck me as odd her tv was on.
I returned the next day as I was a little worried about my neighbor and it took a few minutes of knocking but she finally answered and when the door opened I felt relieved. I presented her tin with a smile and I said , “I told you I was going to bring it back.” “Come on in, do you want some tea?”
We had a good conversation and got her phone number so if she didn’t hear me at the door in the future I could call and I gave her my number so if she needed help with something she could call me. After much convincing she agreed to let me photograph her, the following Monday. She kept saying, “Testa Dura!” It is an Italian phrase that means hard-headed or stubborn. Which I guess was warranted as I was not going to take no for an answer unless she had a good reason.
Monday afternoon I came back and there was no answer at the door. I called and left her a message hoping she would answer the door. I went back home after waiting a couple of minutes. A few hours later she called and I told her I would be over the next day. I showed up with my camera bag and a reflector, this was the day I was going to be able to photograph my new friend. I was invited in and she asked, “What’s all that stuff?” I said today is the day I was going to pictures like we talked about last week. I started shooting a few frames as she was getting some tea ready. She poured me some tea and I kept shooting. “Put that whosy whatzit down” she said referring to my camera. I put it on the table and she went on telling me her stories. All the while I was snapping a few frames not looking through the viewfinder. Some snow had fallen the night before and she had shoveled it herself and had a lot of pride she did it herself. “I didn’t do the front because I didn’t want to fall on the stairs.
I grabbed a shovel and cleared her front walk and was glad she didn’t do it herself as it was very slippery and the rain that was now falling made the snow very heavy. I came back in and then she had some money in her hand and insisted I take it. I said I didn’t want her money I just was doing you a favor. “Testa dura” she exclaimed! “You’re going to take this, and that is that.” I took the money and put it in my pocket as I knew refusing would just make her feel bad. I grabbed my gear and headed out, as she saw me out there was some great light by her doorway. I stopped and grabbed this great image on my way out.
I got home and started the edit. I received a call as I was working, it was my sister. She told me my grandmother’s fight with cancer had taken a turn for the worse and she had stopped taking her meds because she felt they were not helping and she was still in a lot of pain. She has been fighting cancer for a few years and recently it had spread to her liver and was moving aggressively now and the doctor has given her a week or two. At 88 years old I had been ready for this call to come at some point but I was struck by the timing and instantly felt bad that I was not in a position to go home and see her.
I wanted write this post solely about meeting Rita but I had to think about the timing and how she kept asking, “God what did I do to deserve this?” as she was convinced somehow god was punishing her by me wanting to take her picture. Through my many visits talking with Rita I gained a new perspective and understanding on the journey which is life. Rita says she wants to live by herself as long as she can but hates feeling like she is a burden to others. It was uplifting to hear her say she had a great life but it was sad to hear her say all that she wanted now was a good death when it came and that she prayed not to be a burden. “I am 89 years old how much longer do they want me stick around?” It was then I realized the reality of that statement and I got to thinking how long would I want to live?
After some thought I guess there is a burden of grief for longevity of life. She had answered the phone on one of our visits and someone she knew had passed. It was almost as if there was no surprise and it was a relief as the person was ailing for some time. As everyone around you continuously makes their journey away from this world, I guess there comes some thought to your own passing and the longer you live the more prominent it becomes. The reality of it is this if you were suffering daily and had outlived your spouse and most of your siblings and friends, I can empathize with the feeling of asking for a good death.
I have always spoken very matter of-fact of mortality and would not want to be kept alive by machines or anything like it. If I was ready to go and in pain constantly I may feel the same way 40 years from now so I guess I can’t question my Grandmother’s choice. Don’t get me wrong I am not condoning giving up on life, but I now see that side of the argument more clearly, and our own want or need for them to keep on at some point can become rather selfish.
I really hope I can get back soon to see my Grandma Lou before she makes her journey in the near future. I have spoken with her and she said she understands I can’t come back right now. She knows I love her very much because I told her and I guess that is the most important thing. This photo is of my Grandma of Lou last year when she was at my nephew’s baseball tournament.
I am happy to have a good photo her on a day she was so happy as her grandkids and great grandkids mean so much to her.
So my new friend Rita has in a way given me a lot of comfort indirectly, and the timing of this seemed like a little more than coincidence. I am very glad to have met my new friend and I hope her family will get much enjoyment from these images as I am very pleased with them.
Update- 3/29 Last night my Grandma Lou lost her fight with cancer and is suffering no more. I am sad to find out the doctors were right in their time frame and that I did not get to see her one last time. I am filled with emotions of the news sad for my own and my families loss, but happy to know she will no longer be in pain and suffering. I will never forget her caring heart, the laughter we shared, and she made the best Kuchen ever. She was a hard worker, and loved her whole family dearly. I am happy she was able to have this post read to her, it means a lot to know she was proud of me.
We will miss you Grandma Lou!
Dude…you are in the wrong profession ..that was an awesome piece
Hey thanks Bryan, I wrote for my Highschool newspaper, but I enjoyed story telling through photography rather than writing. I would like to think that trying to tell the story helps me get better photographs. Hopefully there will be more stories along these lines. I love editorial type of projects. Thank you very much for the compliment and also taking the time to comment.
I always knew you would pick photography as a focal point in your life and Im sure great things will come from your compassionate nature and insightful abilities. Its great for your neighbor Rita to have you in her life also, you help keep her life exciting:) Keep on doing the good works that are chosen for you and Im guessing your life is being enriched by all those that you help. Hoping to see you soon, we will be in Minn. for Christians graduation for about 5 days in June. I was very impressed by your story and hope you continue to write more short stories.
Hey thanks DeeAnn,
I hope I can make it back to see all of in June. I have found some great things to help with and I found that doing them makes me feel much better about my photography and as a person. I hope I can continue to find things to photograph and hopefully I will find some great stories to write about.
Thanks for taking the time to read my post and also taking the time to comment.
Elizabeth & Roger Geist
During the final days of Grandma’s life I read your story to her. I know that she heard every word and found comfort knowing that you had written it because she ended the story with a smile on her face. Grandma Loved you very much Joel! We shared your story with many of her visitors and to sum up all the responses were THAT WAS POWERFUL! She is now gone from our sight but let the memories and the many photo’s comfort us in the days ahead.
We Love you, Dad and Elizabeth
She will be missed and remembered, there will be a void that cannot be replaced. I am grateful for the years we had, and I am happy to hear people liked my story that you shared with them.
You are a great writer. I think this is amazing. I hope you continue to do exactly what you are doing because it is beautiful.
Thanks Zac its been a rough day… Thanks for the pick me up!
Thanks for sharing these photos at the photography thing in Maynard last night – I have a much deeper appreciation though after reading this piece! so lovely.
Thank you Lori! I am happy to see you took the time to read the story behind the photos. Thanks for taking the time to comment as well:)
I am sorry to hear about your grandmother. Your pictures are wonderful but it is much better that you visit your neighbor. Photography can do a good job documenting humanity but showing kindness defines humanity.
Thanks Bruce, and great line! Thanks for stopping in, checking out the story and your comment.
If we do not document humanity, it is easy to lose sight of it.