I sat down one day, in the mid-80’s, to read and organize my mom’s letters to Roy Stryker… I’d offered to type them for her as she was receiving requests for this and that. I think, maybe Jack Hurley was beginning to work on his book—part of her "rediscovery" as an important photographer. I didn’t even know that much about her FSA work. Just a general idea about the project. And I cannot remember any of her photos hanging on our walls while we were growing up. With the exception of a few she kept in a drawer in a brown envelope, they had been archived at the Library of Congress.
Oblivious to her past years as an independent, free-spirited, well-traveled professional woman, I remember my mom during those early years as a mom--doing mom things--always it seemed, under my father’s shadow. He was the charismatic Brown University, U. of VA law-degreed, Madison post-grad philosopher who commuted into Washington each day. They both were beautiful, affectionate and fun, but life during those early days was hard. My father decided to leave his post in the Dept. of Agriculture and, with no financial security, together they undertook the giant tasks of running a large farm and raising a large family. A highlight of my younger days were the times once or twice a year when they would roll up the rug in the large farmhouse living room, sprinkle the wide-plank floor with cornmeal, pack in nearly everyone from our small community, and then they would dance—foxtrot, waltz, jitterbug, and charleston!
In addition to assisting my dad with the "heavy" farm work and home remodeling (most of which they did themselves), my mom wiped our noses, made sure we washed our hands and changed our sheets, and got us to the school bus each morning. During the hot, humid Virginia summers, she (and we) planted, transplanted and weeded both her beautiful flower border and our essential "Victory" garden, and chased the cows when they broke thru the fence in the middle of the night. She cooked a full meal, with a main course, vegetables, a "starch," and dessert, every night, occasionally entertaining friends with a delicately seasoned chicken cacciatore, or beef stroganoff, and good classical music on the hi fi. Each Sunday it was a big, fancier dinner in the middle of the day after a cozy morning with all of us stretched out in the big family "playroom," reading the funnies and constructing elaborate things with tinker toys, Lincoln logs and erector sets.
She took me to the Library every week and guided my selection of "good" books. She went to the PTA meetings, even though she detested them, and was a member of the League of Women Voters. She let us sneak a new kitten into the house, and helped us bury those that died (no vet visits), took us to 4H meetings, music and swimming lessons; made our halloween costumes (always the most original), and cakes, cottage cheese from scratch; defrosted the frig, hung out the laundry—no dryer, washed our hair and helped us dry it before the oven, darned socks and sweaters, patched pants. She mixed paints for our easels; provided mountains of blocks; a sandpile the size of a small city; mounds of wet, gray clay; big packing boxes. Bundled us in and out of snowsuits and dried our mittens on the radiator. She sat with us, and other mothers, at the old spring-fed swimming pool, owned by one of the oldest families in the area and "loaned" to the whole community during the hot summers. She talked and wrote letters and, a good swimmer herself, helped us perfect our strokes. Her closest friend, Willy Kraber, from her Group Theatre days, remained in New York City, and long-distance phone calls were off-limits, very expensive in our rural area where we still had a party line! With so many chores and responsibilties, however, we rarely had time alone. It was an exciting event when she would pick me up at school so just the two of us could dash to a sale for bargains on school clothes or shoes. (She was given a strict allowance each month from my father.)
There were 4 of us…stair steps…2-3 years apart. Two had suffered the loss of their mother at a very early age to cancer. My mom had the difficult task of taking her place. I and my brother followed. Four sets of measles, chickenpox, strep throat, winter colds & flus. Plus, animals and crops, remodeling of houses, educating each of us—there were no pre-schools or kindergartens in Loudon County, Va! And, as we grew, she supervised our full program of chores, homework, and reading. I remember distinctly, though, the occasions when I’d find my mom sitting on her bed surrounded by stiff, brown envelopes w/ bold black lettering and a NY address.
I learned that these packages to and from LEICO were special and expensive, and made her happy. She had a different glow, an ease and energy when working with these envelopes and their contents. I’d watch with fascination as she carefully cropped little square negatives with a fat grease pencil. Sensing also something a little surreptitious and mysterious; I knew they were very important to her. And, on one very special trip together to see my grandmother in Connecticut, my mother introduced me to New York City. Here, I received my first taste of her old life—We must not have had a place to stay, because I remember the thrill of staying up for hours! She gathered up her gumption and tracked down Phil Adler, an old acquaintance from the Group Theatre who was working on Broadway. Tickets (at an unbeatable price) to three of the best shows in town—My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and Bells Are Ringing! An afternoon watching the Security Council at the UN, to Rockefeller Center, the Village, Chinatown, Fifth Avenue, the new Guggenheim. Such a contrast; such a blur. Definitely one of the most memorable times of my life, and one of the closest times with my mother.
More often than not her Rollei dangled from its thin strap around her neck. As a young girl, it seemed my mother saw the world through the square glass inside the thin metal flaps of the Rollei viewfinder! Watching her children at play or at work was always an opportunity for a few snaps. And, on just about any type of outing, something in the passing landscape would often capture her attention. Anxiously she’d cry, "Lee, please stop. Could you back up? Hurry, the light’s fading." Daddy would chafe, as, with a mix of frustration, helplessness and eager excitement she would climb on the car or cross the road, wade into a field, check the light. We knew that by assuming just the right vantage point, she would see things differently from others. With childish disdain, we also knew her photos were much better than anything produced by our friends’ little Brownie boxes. This, along with the gardening, cooking, and helping my father knock out walls and transform ancient farm houses served to satisfy some of her creative hunger.
Also, they had chosen to raise us just outside a unique, tiny community of about 400 people--Waterford, Virginia, with one main cobblestoned street, a small market, a blacksmith who also cut hair and pumped gas, and a little white schoolhouse at the top of the hill . Many of the men commuted into Washington, and some of the very gifted women had formed a Players’ Group, a Choral Society, and an Arts and Crafts Foundation (which survives today). When I saw my mother playing the lead in "The Night of January 16th," I was both awestruck and stagestruck. I had not recognized in her before this overt creativity, expressiveness, confidence, sophistication. Similarly, when my father was "The Man Who Came to Dinner." They both seemed so elegant, so attractive, so literary! I had chosen well…parents who had given to us a wonderful combination: the wholesome, close farm life where we gained an awareness of so many basic aspects of life as well as great resourcefulness, a sense of teamwork, fairness and hard work; a love of nature and concern for the environment, etc; bundled with the breadth of their cultural and educational backgrounds and interests!
There were many changes following my father’s serious accident and long convalescence, the sale of the Virginia property, our move to the Southwest, and then, the first of my father’s many overseas assignments with USAID. With the exception of an eye-opening summer in Iran, from the age of 16 until after Daddy’s retirement and their return to the West Coast, I would see them very little. My mother, however, once again photographed seriously during their stints in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and India, producing hundreds of slides to be culled and sorted!
Having begun to seriously collect modern art during their travels, when they had resettled in Santa Barbara in the early 1970’s, they made regular trips to the museums and galleries in Los Angeles. When I, then married with two small children, was able to join them, we had an exciting and illuminating time…the beginning, also, of the broadening of my own art education and interest. Now, as I sat reading her letters, even photography had become an important focal point for collecting, exhibiting, studying, and enjoying.
As her words formed image after image in my mind, so much began to come together. Why she had always had to have clothes with pockets! All the thought, passion, compassion, hard work, commitment, sense of humor, intelligence of a very young, but wise, beautiful woman of 28---still there some 30 years later—a vitality and depth that had been segwayed into dozens of other interests and achievements, and a deep love for her husband--tempered by some resentment and sadness, but committed and enduring.
I never knew about the night, in 1965, when she tried to meet her colleagues at a reception for Russell Lee at the Smithsonian, and was "stood up," because, unbeknownst to her, Russell had not been given her message. She never shared that hurt and disappointment with any of us...yet it probably was pivotal in her decision and need to remain with my father. Childcare was difficult and expensive; she had no car, nor a college degree. She felt that Stryker had sort of brushed her off when she had inquired about the possibility of returning to work, and, at the end of the FSA, she had not moved on to a position with one of the "Picture Magazines," as had some of her colleagues. At times when she was distraught, I thought I could smell her fear…frustration, chagrin and justification. However, she had never stopped loving my father; but throughout the years, she had chafed under his tight, and at times unreasonable and insensitive, control. On the other hand, she enjoyed a great deal their travels and overseas living, their intellectual and physical compatability, and sexual "glue;" their shared commitment to educating and supporting their children; a deep variety of common interests, passions and activities; interesting friends, and more; and she had learned to repress the hurts and annoyances. Of course, times were different, too, before the advances brought on by the "women’s movement" made it much more feasible for wives to work outside the home.
For several hours I sat in the middle of my kitchen floor pouring over her letters, tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t even know she could write like this! Always my father had been the writer. He’d edited our papers, pounded vocabulary words into our heads, worked at his big table/desk in the long living room on his old Remington, dictated our practical choices that often shaded a more artistic perspective.
Why hadn’t I seen these letters before? Her extreme modesty? Unending tasks and distractions? Or, had she, herself, just received this stack of xerox copies from the Stryker archives? No one, least of all her, had known the value of the FSA files. Photography was not an "art." She had been isolated on our farms, overseas, in Santa Barbara and Mendocino until, in the mid-70’s, Lee Witkin and Jack Welpott motored up the Coast from San Francisco to talk with her about an exhibition in New York, the first of many, many to come.
It was, after all, her turn.
I took a deep, deep breath and began to type.
© 1999 by Linda Wolcott-Moore
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