I've been planning a series of blog posts honoring women. March is Women's History Month and I should've gotten started by now. Since it's nearly April, I have time to celebrate only one woman this month – my grandmother Fern Steuteville Wilson, or Tutu, to her grandchildren.
I won’t recount my grandmother’s long life but I will share a bit about my relationship with her. My parents divorced when I was very young and I was fortunate that my paternal grandparents chose to continue their relationship with my mother and me. I spent a great deal of time with them, and when they moved from Lake Forest, IL to Evergreen, CO, my mom and I soon followed. I spent weekends and summers with my grandparents and after my mom remarried and we moved to California, I spent holidays and summer vacations in Littleton, Colorado with my grandparents. My Tutu taught me to drive, she helped me attend cheerleading camp, Girl Scout camp, and she paid for my college education. She gave me my first car and didn’t yell at me when, in my sophomore year, I decided to go to visit friends on the east coast for Christmas rather than staying home with the family (she gave me a Bah Humbug sweatshirt and a credit card “just in case”). My grandmother was there for me the day I gave birth to my first son – she cleaned my house and left meals in the freezer. She volunteered to babysit my son, Drake, one day a week in his early years so she could have a close relationship with her great-grandchild. She attended Drake’s luau themed birthday party wearing her best muumuu and did the limbo with the rest of us. She was there for us when my husband lost his mother and when we all lost my Uncle Tom (Tutu's son).
Unfortunately for Tutu, with old age came deafness and blindness. Her 50 years of tennis and her even longer career as a writer and editor came to an end as did much of her social life and independence. As her geographically closest relative, I began to assume the role of care-giver. I worked close to her home and visited her at lunch five days a week. When she was forced to move to assisted living, I became her connection to the rest of the world. I wrote her Christmas cards, managed her bills, and helped her phone her family. I was there for all her doctor’s appointments, and there when she had her ever-more-frequent trips to the ER. I was there at her last Thanksgiving, her last Christmas, I was there when she began to sleep more than she stayed awake, and I was there when she died two years ago this month.
Tutu was my true constant for my whole life. I have many photos of my grandmother – almost all of them are snapshots. We have only a few real portraits of a woman who lived to be 95 years old, who was at Hickam Field during Pearl Harbor, who mothered three children, loved five grandchildren, and cherished two great-grandchildren. I have very few photos of me with my grandmother. And though she was still living after I became a photographer, the photo I never took was her portrait.
Not having a beautiful photo of me with my grandmother, or a quality portrait of her toward the end of her life makes her loss hurt all the more.
Mother’s Day is coming soon. I am going to gift my mother a book of photos of us together through the years. If she were near, I would have a portrait made of us together. Not just a snapshot, but something that I value and treasure and will hang in my home and pass to my children.
Here is a lovely quote from Tutu excerpted from her memoirs: "I suddenly realized that as I was recounting my memories, it was like sitting in a bank and counting my money. These memories are my true wealth." I feel that way about my photographs.
There are a few lovely photos I took of Tutu after I became a photographer, the one above with the snood on her head is a particular favorite. I love the shot below with all the wrinkles. Both shot on film and I processed them in the darkroom.