Is that a movie star? Nope. It's a 1958 photo of the ever-stunning Ruth Leslie Bean, my grandma. It is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos my grandpa, John Bean, has taken of Grandma over their 71 years of marriage. He recently told my mom he takes so many photos of Grandma because she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. (I'm tearing up just repeating those words.)
My post last year about Grandma remains one of my most viewed. Since today is Mother's Day, and I've always thought of Grandma as "the ultimate mom," as a mother to six, grandmother to 16 and great-grandmother to 27, I thought today would be a meaningful time to share a few more of her thoughts on motherhood.
Four and a half years ago, when I was newly married and not yet a mom, I got the seedling of an idea to interview my grandmothers and mother about their expectations and perceptions of motherhood. I wasn't sure what I would do with the interviews—and I'm still not—and have only completed two of the three—it turns out babies make it difficult to conduct interviews, but I'll be calling soon, Grandma Connors! At some point I will finish that last interview and pull them together into something cohesive.
In the meantime, let's rewind four and a half years to when Grandma Bean was a mere 87 years old. Here are a few notes from her interview.
I worried I had missed the chance to talk to Grandma about motherhood. Over the last few years, her short-term memory had deteriorated, and signs were emerging that she was beginning to struggle with her long-term memory, too. I pulled Mom aside and asked whether she thought Grandma could still speak to her expectations of motherhood and what it means to be a mother. Mom said she thought the topic was so close to Grandma's heart that she would still be able to talk about it.
The mercury was hovering in the mid-teens with a wind chill well below zero as Mom and I drove to Grandma and Grandpa's apartment. Gusting snow blanketed the rush hour traffic—a typical Minnesota evening. Grandma was wearing her Coach sneakers. We sat on the sofas they've had as long as I can remember, which were recently recovered in a powder blue floral pattern.
Grandpa sat with us and chimed in when he could. Mom helped spur Grandma to talk about things she knew were important to her.
Grandma did speak fluently. In fact, for the first time in several years, I felt like my old Grandma was back. Something inside her came alive as she spoke of her children and the values she hoped she instilled in them. To be good. To make the world a bit better. To love one another.
I expect it will become more and more difficult to draw that part of her out, but what a gift today was for me. What a gift to see her glow when she spoke of the dearest subject of her life: motherhood.
Here are a few of my favorite short excerpts from the interview.
JCS: What were your expectations going into motherhood?
RLB: I guess I was overwhelmed with love for my children. My expectation was that, of course, we would always love our children and that we hoped they would forgive us for our mistakes as we were raising them. But I just expected that everything was going to go perfectly, and it did. [Laugh]
JCS: What do you owe your children?
RLB: Love. Unconditional love. That’s the first thing. You owe them a sense of stability. I think you owe them an example. You are there example. And, therefore, you have an obligation to be a decent person.
JCS: How much of your energy do you owe your children?
RLB: It’s a complicated question.
JBB (Grandpa): Well, you gave them all your energy. That’s why you’re so tired now!
RLB: I gave them all my energy! Well, I think when they’re little you owe all your energy to them.
JCS: Is there anything else you want to add about being a mom? How important has it been in your life?
RLB: [Laugh] How important has it been? It’s been my life.
Who could put it better? Happy Mother's Day to you and yours!
I planned to post a batch of photos today from our trip to Florida last week, but instead I'm writing a memorial to our dear old buddy Austin, our nearly 12-year-old black lab/shepherd who died unexpectedly yesterday morning.
(Above: One of my favorite photos of all time. Jeff and Austin: A guy and his dog.)
He died peacefully in the care of his vet, but it happened so fast that we were still out of town. I've spent the last 36 hours fixated on the fact that we didn't even know he was sick (it was cancer—everywhere) and that we didn't make it home in time to say goodbye. And, of course, I feel guilty that the dogs went from being our babies to being second-class citizens once our girls arrived on the scene. So I'm trying to pick myself up by the boot straps this afternoon and remember all the happy times we had together.
Austin became Jeff's sidekick at 6 weeks, when Jeff came across some people who were giving away a litter of abandoned puppies they'd found. Jeff, who had just graduated from college, took one look at Austin and knew they were meant for each other. Who could resist this tiny guy?
Austin came into my life more than six years ago when I met Jeff in grad school. I got my own puppy, Finn, that fall. Austin and Finn quickly became best friends and then brothers. And Austin became just as much mine as he was Jeff's.
"The boys," as we referred to them, played and romped and chased and barked and got into lots and lots of mischief together over the years. They road tripped with us to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Colorado, many beaches in North Carolina and just about everywhere in between. Some of my favorite memories with Austin include hiking and snowshoeing with him through the Colorado Rockies.
I promise the boys are just playing around here. They were such nut jobs together!
Doesn't he look just like Ferdinand the bull under the tree?
Our 2009 Christmas card photo.
One of Nora's first words was "dog." She would crawl over to the door, pull up and watch Austin and Finn playing outside while telling them: "Dog. Dog. Dog."
I'll never forget Austin's companionship while I was pregnant and incapacitated by nausea and vomiting. He was always at my side while I lay on the couch too weak and sick to get up. And when I managed to run to the bathroom to throw up, he would follow to check on me, with great concern.
He was terrified of thunderstorms and once became so panicked when a tornado came through town that he climbed behind the toilet to hide and got stuck.
He barked all the time, and we were always yelling at him to be quiet. Now the house is too quiet.
Cricket loved taking him for walks. Jeff would walk ahead with Austin while I pushed the double stroller. Cricket would watch Austin investigating things and comment on whatever he did. It was her lucky day if she got to watch him poop!
Jeff has so many fond memories of Austin from the years before I knew them, but I could never do those stories justice. Let's just say they got into plenty of trouble together.
Here's to you, Austie Bear! Thank you for being our best buddy for 12 years. We love you to no end and will miss you every day.
We are forever seeking treasures on our morning walks. We don't always know what we’re searching for, but we always know when we've found it—a grazing deer, an interesting pinecone, a hawk on the hunt. One morning this fall, we came across the heart-shaped leaf with a heart-shaped hole above. Cricket gingerly held it against her stroller blanket as I took a photo, so we could keep admiring it later.
The sweet memory of Cricket awed by this unique leaf sprang up when we were thinking of making Valentines for the girls to send to their cousins. I ended up designing this flip card and wanted to share it with you, too.
Now back to the theme of searching...Every once in a while I bust out with some unsolicited advice for friends who have yet to find their soul mates. The advice often follows a similar format: "Make sure to marry someone who will still love you after he/she sees (fill in the blank) happen to you." (The delivery room is a weird place, people.) Or: "Make sure the person you marry is the one you want holding your hand when you experience (fill in the blank with something awful or amazing)."
I'm sure my words of wisdom are always very helpful and thoroughly appreciated.
Last week, I experienced another scenario to add to my advice list: Make sure the person you marry is the one you want standing beside you, propping you up as you watch a nurse carry your little one down the seemingly endless hallway to the operating room. (When I looked up at Jeff and knew we were feeling the exact same fear and love for our daughter in that moment, it only confirmed for the millionth time that I had chosen right. And so had he.)
Happy Valentine's Day to those still searching and to those whose search is very much over!
(Last year on this day, I wrote about my love letter to my family.)
Goodness this year has been a blur—one filled with absolute joy and absolutely sleepless nights; with happy, healthy development and loads of viruses (oh, the weird diseases you get with kids around!); with giggles and tears.
But above all, it has been a year filled with profound thankfulness for all we have been given, all we have created and the future we seek together.
Two years ago, Thanksgiving took on a new meaning for us. I'll never forget the moment I glanced up at the clock in the hospital triage room and realized our first baby was going to arrive on this special day. In fact, I can still barely respond without choking up when someone asks me Cricket's birthday.
"She's our Thanksgiving turkey!" I joke to keep the tears at bay, so grateful I am for the little girl who transformed me into a mother. What timing she had.
This year, I am grateful for the doubling of my joy. Nora chose her own day to greet the world. No official holiday—just a beautiful, bright afternoon in May. We first gazed at her as parents who, though a bit more seasoned than we were the first time around, still wondered how we could ever do right by this new life, how we could ever measure up in the face of perfection. I'm sure we never will, but I am thankful for the certainty that we will never stop trying.
Our family extends far, far beyond the walls of our home, and for each member I am grateful. In the last year, our family has propped us up and walked with us when we were too exhausted or too sick or too anxious to move forward alone. How could we ever repay such selflessness?
Despite these blessings, I know several of our family and close friends are struggling through very difficult circumstances this Thanksgiving. My heart is with them, with those on whom they lean and with those who lean on them. I am incredibly grateful that they somehow find the strength each morning to climb out of bed, put one foot in front of the other and fight for their lives.
I could go on forever listing the things for which I am thankful, but enough of my rambling. Go enjoy your turkey. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
Above: Japanese maple in our yard. Below: Red leaf at the neighborhood playground.
I've been longing for the time and brain power to write an essay about having a newborn in the house again—about the things I had already forgotten and how different the experience is the second time around. But collecting my thoughts into anything coherent, let alone stringing words together to express those thoughts, has seemed impossible lately. So I'm going the list route. In honor of Nora's 2-month birthday this week, here are a few notes I've jotted down since she arrived, along with her 2-month portraits.
Things I had forgotten about having a newborn:
Differences the second time around:
Have you considered donating your baby's umbilical cord blood to a public cord blood bank? We're proud to report that we donated Nora's to the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank—a nonprofit housed at my alma mater, Duke—where it will be used for a cord blood/bone marrow transplant or research to improve these types of transplants.
We had tried to donate Cricket's cord blood, but she arrived on a holiday and the collection team was off that day. This time around, we delivered at a hospital that doesn't participate in the program, so we had to do some work ahead of time.
The process was fairly simple. First I called the bank and did a short screening interview by phone, during which they asked me lots of questions about my risk factors for various diseases and conditions that could be passed through the blood. (The interview included multiple questions phrased in different ways to determine whether I was, in fact, a prostitute. Luckily, I'm not.)
After passing the initial screening, the bank sent us a collection kit the size of a small picnic cooler to bring to the delivery, along with half an inch of additional screening paperwork and forms for the doctor to sign.
I filled out most of the paperwork ahead of time, then we carted the kit with us to the hospital on the big day. The admitting nurse drew several extra tubes of blood when I arrived, which the bank would use to test for various diseases. The rest of the collection work fell to the doctor post-delivery while we were busy cuddling Nora. Once the cooler was packed, we called the bank to let them know the donation was ready. They sent a courier to pick it up from the hospital the following day.
Why was I intent on donating the cord blood? As a freshman and sophomore in college, I created a photo documentary about a young boy with a rare immune deficiency who was treated at Duke and ended up requiring a cord blood transplant. Sadly, he passed away shortly after the transplant from complications. I also lost another dear little friend that year after a stem cell transplant failed to cure her cancer.
We donated Nora's cord blood in memory of those two friends. What a way to enter the world, my sweet Nora! It will be an emotional day when she is old enough to understand how a part of her may have saved the life of another child.
Would you like to consider donating your baby's cord blood to a public bank? Click here for information on the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank. Click here for a list of additional banks involved with the National Cord Blood Inventory Program.
(I mentioned above that we failed to donate Cricket's cord blood. Happily, we found another type of donation to make together; we collected more than 200 ounces of breast milk to donate to a local breast milk bank for preterm and other ill babies. When I get a chance, I'll share that unusual and rewarding experience with you.)
Image above via Carolinas Cord Blood Bank
We had so much fun on our last "last trip" before the baby arrives (see posts on Hilton Head and Savannah) that we decided to sneak away just one more time. This weekend we headed to Emerald Isle and Beaufort, NC, with one of my sisters and her family.
While we were on the road, my husband told me he brought two boards and my wetsuit in case I wanted to surf. Then he looked over at my belly and said, "Oops, I guess your wetsuit probably won't fit right now." Yeah, probably not. It took him another moment and a searing look from me to realize that paddling out on a pregnant belly would be impossible, not to mention stupid. So he and my brother-in-law surfed the weekend's almost-non-existent waves together instead, surrounded by dolphins (above).
The house we rented sat right on the nearly empty beach. We walked, grilled and played mini golf, during which my baby niece insisted on holding a club the entire time while sitting in her stroller and my daughter insisted on holding a golf ball in each hand. It was lovely and relaxing, despite the fact that we were all experiencing various stages of the same illness. (We learned this year that along with all the joys, having kids means introducing a continual string of plagues into your life.)
On Sunday afternoon, we headed north to Beaufort, where we wandered around the historic waterfront, spied wild horses across the bay on Carrot Island and dined outside at the delightful Beaufort Grocery.
After my freshman year in college, I spent a summer at the Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island (below), just over the bridge from Beaufort. Somehow it's been 11 years since that summer. Ouch. I decided it was high time I introduced my husband and daughter(s) to this special place. Our visit may have technically been more of a break-in, thanks to a "new" security gate—one that had been installed at some point over the last decade. But man was it fun to be there. Even the post-St. Patty's Day vomit sprinkled around the quad brought me right back to the good old days.
After posing for a photo with Cricket at the best happy hour spot in North Carolina (below), we headed home, where we're settling in for the long haul.
This week marked a bittersweet occasion for me as a photographer, mother and granddaughter; I sold the little Leica collection my grandpa passed down to me about a decade ago, which included two M6 bodies and several lenses. The selling of old gear may not sound significant to a non-photographer, but Leicas are the darlings of the photo world. They're a collector's dream. And oh boy, did the guy at the camera shop I sold them to drool when he got his hands on them.
For about a year, my Leicas traipsed around the world with me. They accompanied me to Paris, where I studied black and white photography at the wacky Studio Vermes, and all over Europe. They even joined me for a few months in Madagascar, where we lived together in a tent and shot mountains of color slides. There we took one of my favorite photos of all time—of a toddler in a nearby village (below). I never quite got her name (Or his? It’s hard to tell when a child wears only rags and has a head shaved to treat lice), but it sounded like Penelope Sue, so that’s how I still think of her. To me, the photo screams Madagascar: impoverished and dusty but still gorgeous.
And then my world suddenly turned digital. I continued to lug my Leicas from home to home as I finished college, moved to a new city, moved again to start graduate school and then got married and bought a house. But in each new place, I simply relegated them to a new closet—where they’ve sat for the better part of the last decade. I’m neither a collector nor a hoarder, so it was beginning to feel as though they were losing their place in my life.
Last weekend, as I was yet again lamenting the quality of my current camera (a Canon Rebel XT) and fantasizing about an upgrade, my brother-in-law suggested I sell the Leicas to fund a new camera. It was the first time the idea actually seemed worth the sentimental loss.
I mulled it over for a few days before hauling the equipment to a local camera store to see how much it was worth. It turns out I was sitting on a gold mine, which I suspected but never had the guts to have it appraised.
I hauled the Leicas back home to debate. What would it mean to sell them?
As a photographer, I would be able to fund a serious and necessary camera upgrade. I’d also lose a valuable collection. But I’m not a collector, so…
As a mother, I would gain a camera capable of better preserving memories of my kids. I’d also have quite a bit of extra cash to purchase the double stroller that could become the key to my sanity in just two months and the play kitchen I’ve been coveting for Cricket to help occupy her while I’m tending to the new baby. Plus I'd still have a chunk of change to put away for a future home improvement project.
As a granddaughter, I would lose a precious gift from my 92-year-old grandpa. My sister reminded me, however, that my grandparents are the least sentimental people ever and would completely understand. She also suggested I shoot some nice photos of the cameras to hang in my eventual studio, which seemed like a nice way to memorialize them.
It became clear that the benefits of selling the Leicas outweighed those of keeping them in the closet for another decade. Feeling justified, I took the leap and unloaded them this morning…and came home with a fat check. Whew. Yikes. Yippee!
I’m not allowing myself to look back. Instead, I’m researching my new camera. Perhaps the Canon 7D?
Today is my grandmother's 91st birthday. In her honor, I'm posting a short essay I wrote about her while awaiting our daughter's arrival. I figure after one rejection and 15 months of wasting away on my hard drive while I was too busy to shop it around, the essay deserves a bit of air. Happy Birthday, Grandma!
Photo caption: Grandma and Grandpa on their wedding day, 1941. They recently celebrated their 70th anniversary. Photo by Doug Berg, Daily Times.
On motherhood, Grandma knows best
It was mid-afternoon, the time of day when I was typically too worn from a restless night’s sleep and the weight of my pregnant belly to do much other than read or doze on the couch. Our dogs, content with my new-found slothfulness, snoozed at my feet.
But something felt different that day—the quality of light seemed suddenly changed and wind gusts were unfastening the last leaves and swirling them to the ground. We’d been longing for this season all year; our first baby was due in a few weeks.
The event’s abrupt nearness pushed me from the couch that afternoon, and I decided to tackle two projects I wanted to finish before the baby arrived: drawing up a birth plan and reviewing a file of Grandma’s correspondence dating back 70 years.
I sat at my computer and allowed my mind to wander to the day I thought would never come. Our birth preferences were simple—nothing bizarre or overly prescriptive. Nothing our doctor would snicker about to her colleagues. The main points included minimal medical interventions and having the baby put on my chest after birth.
Last year, I witnessed this immediate bonding after my sister delivered her daughter. When my niece—naked, raw and wide-eyed—nuzzled into my sister’s chest and peered at her parents for the first time, I craved the same powerful experience with my own baby-to-be.
Energized by the completed birth plan and the intimate image of greeting our daughter, I began to sift through Grandma’s correspondence.
I always admired Grandma for her wise and self-sacrificing ways. Her life has been full of leadership roles and volunteer efforts, but she has derived her greatest joys from being a mother. Now that I was about to embark on motherhood, I realized I have much more to learn from her vast maternal experience.
At nearly 90 years old, she is a mother of six, grandmother of 16 and great-grandmother of 23. When I asked her a few years ago to describe the significance of motherhood in her life, she looked puzzled.
“How important has it been?” she asked. “It’s been my life!”
Age has affected Grandma’s memory. Thankfully she wrote masses of letters and other documents throughout her long adult life. I cling to them, working to glean everything I can from her spectacular example of motherhood.
I started with letters Grandma wrote to her parents during World War II as a new mother whose husband was off flying for the Navy. But I found, tucked into the packet, a more recent essay, dated June 9, 1976, which she had typewritten on Children’s Health Center of Minneapolis letterhead.
Grandma was one of the founders of Children’sand became the chair of the board of trustees in 1974, one of the family legacies of which I am most proud.
As part of the board, Grandma attended a White House seminar on the prevention of psychosocial disabilities in infancy. In the 1976 essay, Grandma wrote to the board, responding to the conference from three perspectives: “as a mother, a layman, and a volunteer trustee.”
It was no surprise she began with her perspective as a mother:
“Through the years I had the opportunity to observe my grandparents, parents, ourselves, and now our six children, working with their families. One factor is unchanging: the instinctive need to be close, physically and emotionally, to one’s infant from the moment of birth. Mothers need to hold, cuddle, and talk to their baby whom they have carried with them for nine months…When the baby is whisked away to the nursery right at the peak of excitement, the fulfillment and love in the first few minutes and hours following birth is denied the mother and leaves her with an incredibly empty feeling. That exhilarating intensity of emotion does not seem to be repeated at a later time.
“It is rewarding to learn that this phenomenon, which is so instinctive, is fully documented by the scientific community. Perhaps now it will be possible for the health care system to accommodate these deep-seated needs.”
The poignancy of the essay, which fell into my lap moments after I finished the birth plan, struck me. Nearly 35 years ago, Grandma was advocating for the right I was now requesting, for a quiet moment of mother-baby bonding following delivery.
Grandma’s essay, informed by her extensive maternal experience, encouraged me to fight for the last point in my birth plan. So be it if the nurses rolled their eyes. In her nine decades of wisdom, Grandma knows a thing or two about what moms and babies need.
The light fading, I settled back onto the couch as the dogs sighed and welcomed my return to the land of idleness. The baby was about to arrive. I was finally ready.
(Note: Our daughter, Cricket, arrived two and a half weeks after I finished this essay. The doctor lay her directly on my chest. She was purple and screaming and perfect. And I was madly in love.)
Happy Valentine’s Day!
I have to admit I’m not that into the actual holiday. After all, my husband should be doing romantic things for me (and I for him) all year long, right? So in lieu of writing about the gooshy side of love today, I’m focusing on the cozy, I’m-in-awe-of-you, I-want-to-make-the-world-a-lovely-place-for-you-type love we’ve got going for our families.
A few months back, I happened upon an interview from Design Mom’s series, Living with Kids, with Milk + Bookies founder Meredith Alexander, who described her home as “my love letter to my family.”
She took the words right out of my heart. What a stunning way to view the haven you work to create for your children, the space in which they will grow and from which they will develop their views of the world.
As our family expands, we are constantly retooling and redesigning the rooms in our house to fit the needs of the little ones and to keep us breathing easily when, for example, the toddler transforms into a tornadic force with the strength to destroy everything in her path. Some of the work we do is more for fun or aesthetics, while other projects are boring and expensive but required to keep everyone safe.
Despite the specific reasoning for each home improvement task we take on, I now consider all of them words or phrases that make up the ongoing love letter my husband and I are writing to our family. That thought makes it all worthwhile, because it’s our hope that the home we create will be our kids’ safest, happiest and most restful place on earth.
How is your love letter coming along?
Photo captions: Valentine’s love from the stoplights and Christmas lights in SoHo.
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.