We inhabit a life that dwells near the marshes of mortality, but we rarely have to wander into the darkness of the fens. Sadly, this past week, I had to cross one such bridge, with the passing of a friend. Dede was a beautiful, witty, smart and sassy woman, and while I honestly can’t say I knew her well, she somehow knew me, and I truly loved sitting and chatting with her. She always made me smile.
Like many of us, Dede moved over the hills of joy and across the occasional plains of sorrow. She lived a big life, without bitterness or regret, and with more grace and selflessness than one would believe possible. It was a life worth living, a goal to which I aspire.
Dede was also the mother of Meara, a dear, dear, friend, so her death was doubly hard. Lee and I went over mid-week to visit, and we descended upon chaos, as their lively neighborhood had turned into a village focused on helping one of their own. Shortly before we arrived, a longtime friend of Meara’s had just completed one of the most important tasks for the memorial: the gathering of the photographs. And so we sat in a small circle for almost an hour, passing around photos of Dede, her family and friends, photos that included not only weddings and parties, but also the mundane–and no less important–touchpoints of everyday living. For that short time, we were laughing, listening, loving and learning a bit more about this beautiful woman. It was a wondrous island in the midst of a sea of sorrow, part of a soothing ritual that has taken place repeatedly through the years as a loved one has passed.
I’ve mentioned before how much I love the print1, and this is one of the reasons why. Holding that Polaroid from August 1965, of Dede, hose in hand, with the can of Budweiser off in the corner, I really don’t need to know the story, or think about why this photo was taken, probably forgotten, and now found again. I’m sure Dede could have told me, but it doesn’t matter. And, witnessing the tenderness in a kiss between mother and daughter, long before I knew either of them, made me feel as though I were actually present at that moment. That stack of photographs passed around on a warm afternoon made Dede live and let us all hold her close for a moment, and it made me honored to be even a small part of the lives of my friends.
I’m told quite frequently that a good photograph must tell a story. There are times when I resist that notion, but I do realize that it is true. You don’t have to know the story, but you do have to know there was a story. Some stories are silent, while others are long, funny pieces that demand explanation. And while a stack of photos won’t replace a life, it does complement it, enrich it, and preserve it.
One of the reasons why I felt such a connection to Dede was because of a photograph. Long ago, I had taken a group of pictures of Meara and her husband Philip at a horse show. Dede saw them, and asked if I would make a print of one of them for her. It was rare in the years since that she didn’t mention to me how much she still loved looking at it. The story in that one is as simple, I think, and as beautiful as any I’ve ever taken. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have had that shared story between us.