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“Frame the Shot!”

New Harbor, Block Island
Photo by S.A. Leys

My mom is sitting on a white Adirondack chair on the lawn of the Narragansett Hotel in Block Island. On this day, our plan was to walk to the library and to our favorite gallery but because it had already been a long day, she told me she wanted to rest and sit for a minute and look out over New Harbor for a few minutes before we started up the hill towards Old Harbor.

“You should frame that shot” she tells me. I have my camera out and am trying to figure out how to get the best shot of the entire harbor. She tells me I should use the bushes that are in front of me to “frame the shot”.

The end result is the photo above. I didn’t think it was a great shot but because my mom was passionate about photography and this was something I was interested in learning, I kept going – taking photo after photo.

The stairs up to Jessie Edwards Gallery in Block Island / S.A. Leys photo

After a half hour or so of trying to get the best shot, we headed up the hill to the Jessie Edwards Gallery. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit because of the diverse backgrounds and styles of the artists whose exhibits were there. As we looked at each painting, mom would tell me why she liked it.

One of the things that always fascinated me was that she never discussed the paintings she didn’t like – she would find something good in all of them and then ask me which ones I liked and why. For the record, she also did this at the Island Free library when we would walk among the stacks and she would select 4 or 5 books to bring back to the boat with her. She would ask me about the authors I liked and why and I would tell her. – The funny thing was that her interests and the books she read would evolve and change a little over time but mine never did. She liked reading books by John Grisham or David Baldacci but as the years progressed, she developed a love for Nicholas Sparks. The authors I told her loved – Elizabeth Berg, Annie Proulx and Leslea Newman are still my favorites today.

And as my love of photography increased, my love for books came to include photography magazines and National Geographic because of how beautiful the photography was. And with each lesson from mom, I kept practicing and practicing to become better at an interest we both shared.

It’s been a year and a half since mom died. Every time I frame a shot, I think of her and that bright sunny day we spent together walking to Old Harbor _ Block Island.

Newport Bridge (framed by a porch on Washington St.) / S.A. Leys Photography

The Beach House – Anna Maria Island

The View at Beach House Restaurant

I think God works in mysterious ways. We went to the Sandbar for dinner a few nights ago and were told there was a two hour wait. We drove to the Beach House (where the picture on the beach above was taken – from the deck of the restaurant) and waited for only 30 minutes. I thought the discrepancy between the two restaurants was interesting as they both have really exceptional food.

Then I thought about the last time I was at each restaurant. Mom and I were at the Sandbar about two years ago. She had had a doctors appointment and we went for lunch afterwards. It was a hot day but we sat outside at one of the tables in the sand under an umbrella and had a wonderful meal.

At around 2p I said to her “we should go” as it was close to the time she usually took a nap. “No, we don’t have to” she said “we can sit here a little longer.” Sitting there watching my 85 y/o mom in the sun enjoying the beach in the background brought me back to my childhood when we spent many summer days at 2nd and 3rd beach back home in Rhode Island with our closest friends. It was like that – a wonderful summer day with mom looking really happy as she wiggled her toes in the sand while sipping on her iced tea.

The last time we were at the Beach House was a few years before that when Dad was still alive. The four of us went out for dinner (I think it was close to a time when I was flying back to Maryland and we wanted to have one last night out). Like a few nights ago, we sat outside on the deck – but back then, we were a family. I had my camera and wanted a family picture of the 4 of us – which the waiter agreed to take. It was the last family photo we had taken.

So as we sat there the other night watching that beautiful sunset, I heard the woman behind me say “We should get a picture of the three kids”. I turned around and asked her “can I take a picture of all of you?” to which she said “certainly – but we need our other son and he’s at the bar”. At that point our buzzer thing went off and she said “don’t worry, go have a nice dinner” but I said “if I see him, I’m coming back!” Sure enough he walked by our table and back to where his family was sitting so I walked over and said “okay – let’s go”. The 7 of them – mom and dad, their three children and their partners stood together with that beautiful Florida sunset in the background as I took their picture and encouraged them to “scrunch!” – which they gladly did. They thanked me and I went back to our table to have dinner. – Retrospectively I think Dad sent us to the Beach House to “pay forward” our family photo.

As I looked over at the 7 of them enjoying their dinner and each others’ presence, I thought about how quickly life can change – as it did for our family so many years ago. One day we’re having a great dinner together and then Dad’s 25 year battle with cancer worsens. Mom’s ascending aortic aneurysm grows and shortly after celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, dad loses his battle with cancer and 3 years after that mom dies from pneumonia. So many of her friends – and her Cardiologist all said “thankfully it wasn’t the aneurysm”. Mom died the way she wanted to go as she frequently said to me “pneumonia is a friend of the aged – it usually takes you at night when you are sleeping.”

When you’ve worked in an ER as I have – and as she has, and several of our friends have, every day you are reminded that life can change in a second. You see the most loving families gather around a loved one as they die or have the critical conversations about the decisions they need to make or how to navigate the road that lies ahead. You see hands being held, hair being stroked and the “I love you’s” which are never easy to hear because of how intimately personal the conversations that accompany them are.

Life can change in a second.

Watching that family the other night I was very tempted to tell them “pay attention to this time you have and this love and legacy of your family” – but I didn’t – for a few reasons – you know, they would have thought I was nuts and honestly, it would have been weird right? – and a heck of an interruption to a wonderful dinner on a beautiful evening. But on nights like that I wish we all could put our cell phones down a little more and look into each other’s eyes when we spoke to them. I wish we had more intimate conversations with our friends to let them know how we feel about them instead of just keeping on and going along.

So after dinner the check came and the waiter told us that the cost of our chowder was covered by “some people” – the family I had taken a photo of. As we left, I thanked them for the “wonderful chowdah” and they thanked me again for the wonderful photo. – which brings me to my last point (I know – I can hear ya – end this long post). – I’m becoming more frustrated with the whole “selfie” thing. Because I know for sure that while a photo from an outstretched arm can be fun, the photos of entire families with their arms around each other are so much better. So if you see an opportunity to help a family out, ask If you can take the photo for them and just say “scrunch up”.

If I Loved You

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Settling into a new career endeavor has not been easy this last month. Lots of new information and people and processes as well as a new place. It’s a huge learning curve that has me slowly moving forward step by step. But every once in awhile mom and dad show up in the most interesting ways.

Most everyone who knows my mom will tell you that she does not excel when it comes to carrying a tune. I remember many cold days singing into her ear so she could get the tone (and key) right as we sang together on the chairlift whenever we went skiing.

I always love listening to music. When we were in Florida, whenever she took a nap, I would put music on softly while I was reading or tidying up around the house – usually after lunch as she would rest until an hour or so before dinner.

One day – a few months before we moved back to New England, mom came in after her nap and sat in her chair listening to the music that was playing. Around this time her short term memory was not great – she wouldn’t always be able to remember what she had for dinner the night before or lunch earlier in the afternoon, but her longer term memory – from her childhood would sneak through quite frequently.

On this day – the music was Chris Botti and Paula Cole singing their beautiful rendition of “If I Loved You” from his “Italia” CD. Initially, as she started listening, mom said “I always wonder what this song is about; does she love him?”. After speculating a little, she soon started singing along to the song – on key. Able to remember all of the lyrics. It was the coolest thing to just sit and listen to her as she softly sang along with Paula Cole. I was astounded that she was able to remember everything about the song while also remaining completely on key.

So usually when I go to work in the morning I leave the music on for Nate and Callie – the soundtrack from mom and dad’s favorite music that was usually on whenever I visited them in Florida or on the boat in New Harbor. It’s an iTunes playlist that has 750 songs that if you played consecutively would take more than two days to complete. It’s also always on “shuffle” – god forbid Nate and Callie should have to hear all the same songs in the same order so random is good.

Today after a long a day of many meetings, I open the door to the apartment at exactly the same time that the first few notes of Chris and Paula’s “If I Loved You” started playing. I just sat on the sofa with Nate and Callie and sang along – ending with a “Hi Mom, Hi Dad” and a little conversation with them about my day.

Lately I’ve learned that grief doesn’t always show up with sadness – sometimes, like today, its more of a peaceful reflection of some great moments in time that stay with us and arrive to brighten our day.

Manchester Monday Morning

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Grace Episcopal Church, Manchester, N.H.
Photo by S.A. Leys

Grace Episcopal church in Manchester is probably one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. This morning we had to move our cars to get plowed out so I thought I would run some errands while I was at it.

Early in the morning it was so beautiful with the abundance of snow on the trees and the roads. But then the wind picked up and by the time I took this, the snow had blown of the roofs and steeples around the city.

Early on after I moved here, I found the best place to take photos was the top deck of the parking garage at the hospital (which I think probably made their security team – and cameras – a little nuts to see a woman walking around on a parking deck with no cars except for mine and looking at the different views – hopefully they also saw my camera..)

Anyhoo, if you listen to the news, Manchester is noted to be one of the more challenging places of the country as it relates to addiction, but they are definitely working on elevating resources and care as a lot of funds have come this way and extended north into Maine. Adcare got a contract in Maine and the hospitals seem to be working together to address care in their ER’s. There is hope – but I wish it could have gotten here sooner for this pretty little city.

There is a program here that aims to keep high risk adolescents and teens off the streets by teaching them how to ski and having workshops about teamwork, responsibility, integrity and addiction prevention.

How did I learn about this?

One day I was at the gas station filling my car and there was a guy at the next pump filling up his chevy truck. “Why a Chevy and not a Ford?” I asked him (I have a never ending curiosity about why people buy the cars they do). “Loyalty” he said. And then told me about the program that he developed to help high risk kids stay out of trouble and make good responsible decisions. He also told me that Chevrolet had donated (!) a total of 7 trucks and SUV’s to his program so the children and adolescents could get to the slopes. He also told me the company he works for (Pepsi) also contributed to his program.

There’s good in the world but there’s also a long way to go. Step by step right?

About That Government Shutdown

Having lived in the Washington DC Metro Area for several years, it was not uncommon to hear reports about potential (or actual) government shutdowns. Whenever they would start, my friends (who worked with the government) would express their concerns about finances and budgeting to manage their finances if the shutdown occurred.

Then there would be additional concerns about how these shutdowns would affect everyone living in (or close to) Washington DC. You can read additional information about shutdowns here.

When the government shutdown in 2013 occurred, I didn’t think a lot about it. But as an apprentice photographer and someone who loves American History, I always wondered how a government #shutdown affected the soldiers who stood by the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Having admired their precision and steadfastness, I always wondered “if the government shuts down, are they still there guarding the tomb of unknowns and performing the changing of the guard?”.

Information about Arlington National Cemetery and Changing of the Guard is here.

And most people who are familiar with this very celebrated service would tell you that they are always there 24/7. And yes, I am one of those people who would love to capture a Changing of the Guard ceremony at midnight or in the early morning hours, when the park is closed and it is snowing. As a photographer, it’s one of my bucket list goals that I would love to try.

So in 2013, the government had been shutdown and there had been a controversy as veterans visiting the WWII memorial as part of the Honor Flight Program had been originally denied access to the memorial because of the government shutdown. Reports of the veterans being barred from and then subsequently (finally) allowed to visit the memorial are here and here.

After hearing this news and wanting to visit (okay – maybe “check in on”) the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, I grabbed my camera and headed out.

Sure enough, Arlington National Cemetery was open but because the government was shutdown, their staffing was limited and none of the tour buses were running so if you wanted to visit any of the sites within the cemetery, you had to go on foot – which I actually love doing because it is quiet and you can see everything at your own pace.

When I approached the Tomb of the Unknowns, I took some pictures and then watched the changing of the guard ceremony. After about an hour of taking pictures, I heard a loud engine and thought about how strange this was as none of the tour buses had been running. But as the sound of the engine became louder, sure enough, a bus full of passengers arrived along the side of the building and stopped.

When the door to the bus opened, all of the veterans who had been originally denied access to the World War II memorial the previous day were assisted off of the bus to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

Usually, when I had seen the Changing of the Guard previously, there were veterans and tourists and families with young children, but never the number of veterans who were escorted and assisted to the front rows on this day.

To say it was inspiring would be a massive understatement.

Those of us who had already been there for a while watched them watch the Changing of the Guard and then looked on again as the ceremony was done to perfection – as it always is. The ceremony ended at the same time the park would be closed for the evening.

Many people stayed to watch (and applaud) as the veterans returned to their bus, glad (like I was) to have been able to share this moment with them. Once their bus had left, the remaining quiet was disturbed only by the footsteps of the rest of us leaving the cemetery inspired and motivated by the service of the men and women who had joined us on this day.

New England Harbors: Damariscotta, Maine

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Damariscotta, Maine / S.A.Leys Photo

This is the harbor in Damariscotta, Maine. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to sail with my dad whenever they went to Maine which was just about every other summer.

I had never been there until a few months ago. But seeing this view (above) and how great the town was with its fishing boats, restaurants, art, and antique shops and one of the best 5 & !0’s I have ever seen, I certainly I understood why they loved it as much as they did.

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 Damariscotta, ME / S.A.Leys Photo

There’s something about New England harbors that takes my breath away. In this case the glistening ripples of the water and the warmth of the sun. Growing up in Rhode Island I spent a lot of time on the boat with them and would have many views just like this one in harbors from Mystic and Stonington to Kennebunkport and Nantucket.

Whenever we went on vacation, I always packed 2 – 3 books to take with me and would frequently glance up from the pages to see the beautiful views of each harbor we visited.

Once we went on shore we would spend time walking along the streets of each town looking at the shops and houses along the way. These adventures always seemed to end with ice cream before picking up fresh vegetables and seafood to have for dinner once we were back on the boat.

Then after dinner, more reading commenced before heading out the next morning to the next harbor and town.

If you ever have the chance to visit Damariscotta, go!

Driving

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Photo Courtesy of M.Twomey – T.S.S. Photography

This was the view that mom had when she was in her assisted living place. One day (just about a year ago), I arrived early in the morning to find mom uncharacteristically sitting up in bed, staring intensely out of her window looking at this view. She looked like she was deep in thought so I asked: “what’s going on?”.

“Come on over here,” she said, patting the pillow in the bed next to her. As I sat down she quietly said to me “I’m trying to figure out how to tell my friends I don’t drive anymore.”

She told me she had told them that it was because I needed to have the car. “That’s okay, I’ll take the fall for this,” I told her, laughing. But this wasn’t the full truth. The truth was that months before I had arrived in Florida to help her take care of dad, she had been driving him to an appointment one morning when she suddenly felt dizzy.

“Pull over!” dad said. As there was an abundance of fast-moving traffic, she couldn’t and so they pulled into one of those wide turning lanes that they have in Florida to sit “for a minute” (which was the version of this story I had initially heard from dad when he recounted the story to me a few days after it happened).

But as mom recounted the story for me on this day, she said it was more “like 30 minutes” that they sat together in the car – with the engine off and the hazard lights on, in the turning lane of one of the busiest roads in their town. She had a TIA (which usually when I had seen her have them, lasted roughly about 15 – 20 minutes).

When she felt better, she said she was okay to drive but Dad told her “No, not yet” and they sat in the car for a little longer before heading back towards home. As she continued to tell me this story, she told me, definitively, that she didn’t want to drive anymore after that day.  She paused before quietly saying “I would never be able to forgive myself if I hurt anyone”. 

My mom had had a successful career as an acute care nurse for several years. Anyone who has ever grown up with an ER Nurse knows (as I did) what this is like.

Try to tell them you’re sick and you can’t go to school? The response will be “you’re not sick, get dressed and go meet the bus!” Or the time my dad fell down skiing; when he reached up to touch his forehead he pulled his hand back and saw blood. “I’m bleeding!” he told her, to which she replied, “oh don’t worry about it, it’s just a minor abrasion, you’ll be fine.”

Mom had a way of just navigating through illnesses and injuries that (if they were minor), kept us going as a family. If they were major (as in the autoimmune illnesses my father had), she always stayed firmly grounded in her belief that everything was going to be okay.  Throughout my lifetime, I only saw her become rattled once, and even then, as she spoke to me about how she felt, she slowly returned to her belief that everything was going to be okay.

But on this day when she said she would no longer drive as she didn’t want to hurt anyone, in her sadness and concern, I saw the depth of her compassion and caring that I’m sure fostered the great nurse that she was.

“We’ll figure it out,” I told her, “we’ll get you to where you need to be”.  “I know,” she said, and then as if on cue, returned her gaze to the trees outside and said, “aren’t those white birch trees just beautiful?”

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