The Hands of My Mother

Ines LehmanThis is a story about a simple picture gone wrong and why a do-over is sometimes the right thing to do.

Every month in Marin Magazine I do a small feature called Marin Album — a photograph and a short essay. Typically, the photo is some scenic slice of Marin life, like this one of a cyclist in the Headlands or this one of a little leaguers on opening day of baseball season.

For the May issue, the magazine asked if I could make a picture for Mother’s Day of a mom and her new child. Nice, I thought, that will be sweet. Plus, it’s simple. I can use window light and skip some of the complicated setups I’d been doing recently.

One of the magazine’s writers had a baby a month ago, a boy, so I arranged a visit to her home. When she opened the door, her dog, some kind of pug, started barking and never stopped — I kid you not — for the hour I was there. It was a sign I should have heeded.

I looked around the house. Too dark to shoot in except for the living room. But the windows were behind the sofa, meaning if I put her and the baby on the couch their faces would be in shadow.

This is where the “should have”s” begin — I should have brought in some lights instead of sticking with the natural light plan. I should have asked her to change her green shirt, which reflected an icky tone on the baby’s skin. I should have taped the dog’s mouth shut.

And, when she brought out her son from his crib I should have said, “This is not going to work.” He was a cute kid, as all month-old’s are, but his skin was bright red, blotchy and pimply. a condition I later learned to be “baby acne.” Without some serious Photoshop retouching, this little boy was going to look more like pre-pubescent teen than Baby of the Month. (And, don’t forget mom’s green shirt adding to color mix.)

I should have said I’d be back in a month, but I didn’t. I shot, I used reflectors, I turned them this way and that. Two gigs later, nada.

Later, looking at the shoot in the computer, I kept thinking, “How could I blow a shot of a baby.” All I wanted was this and the best I got is what you see to the left.

I fessed up to the magazine, blamed the dog and said I needed another mom and another baby. That’s how I met 3-month-old Maya, above, and her mother, Ines. This time I told them what to where, brought in some lights and put the dog outside. Better. Much better. And at the point when I wrapped Maya in the blanket and asked Ines to hold her head I knew I had the shot I wanted.

Ines’ hands wrapped around Maya’s tiny head reminded me of what my mother used to say about her hands, how as she grew older they resembled those of her mother.

I used that thought as the key for the text below (after the jump).

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The Hands of My Mother

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does.” — Oscar Wilde

My mother, Eleanor, is 81 and sometimes in the early evening she sits at the dining rooming table, a cup of tea steeping nearby, and pauses in the middle of a conversation to look at her hands.

“These are the hands of my mother,” she says, examining the skin, spotted with age, and the fingers, gnarled with arthritis. Then, each time, she tells me of the day her mother – my grandmother – said the same thing to her. “Ever since,” my mother says, “I’ve seen myself growing older as my hands become hers.”

For a newborn, a mother’s hands are a constant cradle. They caress, they clean, they comfort. They provide security, transportation and support. Within those hands, the child grows. From them, she learns how to grasp, how to eat, how to care for another. They leave an impression so indelible it is no wonder that daughters see their mothers in themselves.

These are the hands of Ines Lehman of Mill Valley, and in them she holds her daughter, Maya, who some years in the future may glance at a fading magazine page and wonder if she, too, has the hands of her mother.

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