DIY Photo Stories
Using your photographs to tell your story, one at a time, is a great way to get started. You don’t need to choose them in any order. You can begin by just sitting quietly and recalling all you can about what was happening in the photo at the time is was taken, the background story, and even some present day reflections.
Below are some examples of photo stories I’ve written from my own life.
scenes from a Life…
I was 45 when I discovered I was pregnant with my third child. And it was a discovery. Unlike with the first two, when I eagerly awaited clues, I attributed the tiredness and other unspecific symptoms I felt to menopause—until I didn't.
He was a much desired surprise. Following a miscarriage a few years earlier, I figured that a third baby wasn't to be. But the longing never left. I envied women who felt complete; I started to explore adoption.
The reaction from friends and family was, in retrospect, pretty interesting. My uncle is the only one who said what was on everyone's mind, "At your age!?"
I can't deny that the timing was a concern for me: not about the pregnancy—I felt as good and strong as I had with the others. But I knew I'd be out of sync with most parents of his peers and with friends with whom I'd shared the first wave of child rearing. Also, I was more familiar with kids in clumps; my mother had 4 of us in 8 years. The baby would be 8 and 10 years younger than Ben and Jo; what would their relationships be like?
They took possession immediately. When I offered a short list of possible names, they said, "Adam. He's Adam." And that was the end of that discussion. Neither hesitated to do anything for him from the first moment—okay, maybe they drew the line at a messy diaper—but as this photo reveals, they owned him. Then and now.
Scenes from a life...
This beautiful photo of my paternal grandparents, Louis Marton and Madeline Bernheim Marton, saddens me when realize how little I knew my father's mother.
Grandma and Grandpa regularly took the train from New York City to our home in Ossining to visit us. My mother would pick them up in the late afternoon and they'd be part of our after-school life until my father arrived home, also from the city, around 6:30. Then we'd have dinner and drive them back to the train.
Grandpa was the larger-than-life figure, a surgeon who had lots of stories, always wore a tie and jacket, and commanded respect. He'd poke a finger in my back to make me sit up straight or tell me that letting the dog lick my face was unsanitary (I did it anyway). He was warm and would reach for my pulse whenever I sat next to him.
Grandma, it was whispered, was depressive, or manic. She was unreachable in either mood, not that I really remember trying or even knowing how to. My father was very solicitous of her and held her up to me as "the most selfless woman" he knew. Years later a wise therapist suggested I think about the real meaning of that word—self less.
Before she got married, my grandmother was a kindergarten teacher. Afterward, while her husband led a very full and active life with many admirers, she was mother to three little boys, but with little agency. Her parents, Lillie and Isaac Bernheim, lived with them for much of the time, and ran the house. Madeline went to synagogue and the Philharmonic. She played the piano.
A few years after my mother died, she had a stroke. I was about 24 and living in Boston and, as I stood at the foot of the hospital bed that was set up in their Park Ave. apartment, she told me I should move back home to take care of my father. For years that admonition caused me both shame and anger.
I realize that I'm filling in a lot of blanks, but I believe that her social station in life, her obligations and responsibilities, and the era in which she lived, left her little room for a "self." Unlike my maternal grandmother who made an art of housekeeping, Grandma had no interest in domesticity, which was supposed to be her primary domain. My guess is that there were a lot of women of that generation like her—educated, smart, and wholly unsuited for the prescribed lives they lived.
In Your Own Words
scenes from a Life…
Like most of our photos, this one holds a story that is more than the moment of two people on a beach—even though I don't know how my parents' spontaneous dance came about. Taken in the late 1950s or early 60s, my mother was probably trying to teach my father a move or two, which she did throughout their marriage. He was amenable, but none of it ever really seemed to stick.
Outside of family, music was her life. She began training as an opera singer at the age of 13 and when she got married at age 23, my grandfather (her father-in-law) offered to pay for her to continue her studies. But, as she explained it, the life of a coloratura soprano was at odds with being a wife and mother, and she declined.
When the last of her four children began school, my mother started studying piano and before long became a children's piano teacher. She loved it.
My father never voluntarily listened to any kind of music. It had no place in his life. She, on the other hand, had a subscription to the New York Philharmonic; loved the harmonies of the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, the sounds of Herb Alpert, and was devoted to WQXR radio. Our living room had her piano at one end and the wood cabinet HiFi at the other.
Scenes from a Life…
My maternal grandmother, Pauline Haas Stern—Mimi to her grandchildren—was an only child and an orphan when she married into this family of New York Hungarian Jews—five girls and two boys. She was born in 1898; I'm guessing this picture was taken shortly after she married Edward Louis Stern in 1917. He was 21 and insisted on walking her home from a dance. Pauline and Louis, as everyone called him, are the third couple from the left.
She was desperate to leave the home where she lived with three generations of unhappy women cousins, after her father died of tuberculosis. Her mother had died several years earlier from sepsis following an abortion she had thinking that her baby would be born with tuberculosis.
Pauline found a lifelong friend in her husband's youngest sister, Ethel (far right), but I rarely heard about the others. Her strength in life was love—and a steely will that blocked out anyone she deemed unworthy of that. She held on fiercely to Louis through many ups and downs until he died at age 65.
She loved her grandchildren with an abundance that, like sunlight and water, I took for granted. As with so many women of her generation, she was dependent on the men in her life for the roof over her head, but she remained in control of her heart. As I grow older and understand more of all she went through—the abandonment, the dependence, the pain—I marvel at the love she showed until her death in 1993, grateful to have known it.