08 March, 2007

Precious Photo Gift Idea to Buy for Your Adoptive Mom

A healing dreamscape featuring Liz’s biological mother (upper right as an adult)
and in B/W (as a young woman). Liz's adoptive parents hang on a wall (above the Easter basket).

I have this belief. When adopted kids are all grown-up with kids of their own, I believe true maturity blossoms - maturity that allows them to finally put their teenage angst and abandonment issues behind them and see their adoptive mom for who she really is. Their mom.

These days, the p.c. thing is for adoptive moms to present their child with a scrapbook that traces their adoption journey when their child is deemed "ready" (something that's occurring at an ever more tender age.) I propose doing it the other way around. Why not have the adult daughter or son give their adopted mom a personalized photo collage gift that traces their adoptive mother's love, from before you were even born to the adult child you are today! Give it to her on Mother's Day, when you've been a parent yourself for a couple of years and know what it means to bond with your child.

Not long ago, I created a custom photo collage for a biological mom to give to her daughter, showing her the many things she had in common with her daughter, down to the way they wore their hair, or the many Celtic and Polish connections that flowed through their lives by birth or marriage. The photo collage also paid its respects to the parents who raised Liz. In a 19th century Polish kitchen that anchors the photo collage, I hung a photo of Liz's adoptive parents' from a little peg, highlighting their faces in a warm light.
Since making that custom photomontage, I've thought many times that one day Liz will make her adoptive mom a present as well. For now, the photomontage is seen through the lense of Liz's biological mother. I believe every adoptive mom would relish a photo gift celebrating the sacrifices they made to find you, the love of their life. You might even want to accompany your photo gift with a letter or poem where you can pour out all the feelings you never gave voice to before. The voice that answers those nagging worries of the adoptive mom, like:
  • Am I a good parent?
  • Does my daughter know how much I love her?
  • Am I putting up with her nonsense some days, only because I'm scared of what she's really feeling?

Make Mom a Heroic Photo Collage Gift

Here's how I would get started on a heroic Mother's Day photo gift for your adoptive moms:

  1. Interview your mom about your adoption and the journey to find you. Type while she's talking or turn on a digital tape recorder. Use photographs to help jog her memory. Ask her how she felt, how she fought for you, and where she got the courage to do the things she did.
  2. Collect the photos the agency or orphanage clipped to your file from the very beginning.
  3. Grab any maps to these faraway places. Identify with arrows exactly where she found you. Embellish the page with her plane tickets.
  4. Make a copy of every form Mom personally filled out and tear out the portions where you see her handwriting.
  5. Find the first photos where she holds you in her arms, as well as the best pictures of the two of you at every point in your life up till now.

Now here's the important part. Enlist a talented digital artist to incorporate all these photos into a beautiful non-linear photo collage or dreamscape.

If you have some concerns about how to pull this off, read my FAQs --

Q: What if I don't have a great photograph of the two of us together at that point in time?
A: A really good digital artist can take entirely different photos and seamlessly combine them as if everybody was already there and somebody snapped the picture!

Q: What if I can’t find any pictures of Mom at the orphanage in China or Russia?
A: With amazing picture-sharing sites like Flickr and WebShots, a digital artist can track down photographs from the most obscure spots in the world, and ask permission from the photographer to use them in your custom photo collage for a small fee, or no fee at all!

I promise that as you go through the process of tracing your mother’s love, you will become the Family Historian and Guardian Angel. And when you present your personalized photo gift on Mother’s Day, you’re going to walk on water. But then again, you always did, and always will.

05 March, 2007

Healing Artwork for a Death Bed Refresh

Four pictures of Lyuba plus one chimpanzee
collaged together in an apple orchard.

You can love a person to their last dying day, and still not want to remember a thing about their dying. That's normal. It's also a fact that we have little control over memory. The shock of watching a person leave this world for the next seems to engrave itself on our very subconscious.

A year ago, I started to work with a family where the grandmother was beginning a steady physical decline: portly in her 60s, 70s and 80s she was now sunken and frail. Yet even before this physical decline, Lyuba’s family saw a creeping negativity begin to color her features and knit her brows. “I’m not an idiot,” she’d say. “I know what you’re up to.” If Lyuba was in slightly better spirits, she’d call her daughter-in-law a Petty Sadist, or an “Artistka” (as in con artist).

For a pediatrician who loved castor oil and the miracle cures in her Russian language health magazine, Lyuba now was a guarded patient who wouldn’t take her medicine. Why should she? She had seniority over most of her doctors. Of course, she knew better how her body would process the dose ….

In the last week of Lyuba’s life, when low caloric intake reduced her body to sinew, her grandson came to say goodbye. To make a record of her life, he took photos of everything in her apartment. The very last picture he took of his grandmother was from her bedroom doorway. What you see is a kind of tent: someone in bed with their knees pulled up under the sheets. Behind the knees to the right is Lyuba’s face tilted upwards, her mouth open in a dark, shapeless maw. Two days later when the phone call came, Lyuba’s 56 year old son came to supervise the ambulance attendant and give comfort to the caregiver. What his son recorded on film is more or less what he saw too in those early morning hours.

After everyone paid their respects and the family cleaned out Lyuba’s apartment, the number of Lyuba photographs in his possession rose dramatically. Yet however much he tried, that last dying day became the only picture of her he could keep in his mind’s eye. He'd try to refresh the picture, but the photos kept reflecting back the same image … something straight out of Munch’s “The Scream.”

For a time, his wife tried re-framing the photos and putting them in contemporary frames: Lyuba as an army nurse, Lyuba on cross country skis, Lyuba on the floor playing with her grandson (the one who would come to take her death bed picture). But the attempt at making the Lyuba Photos look like antique accessories was still misfiring. Now the son couldn't get Lyuba’s last dying year out of his mind, and was beginning to feel guilty about it. Why was this happening?

Falling in Love With Multiple Personalities

To remember Lyuba as a more integrated personality, we decided to co-create a “new and improved” Lyuba. Using the medium of digital photomontage, we'd contain all her former selves in one location! For this I needed all the photos of Lyuba at a certain age (in her 70s and 80s) when she was most likely to be wearing a favorite green pantsuit – a polyester number worn with the same white blouse. We ended up with four full body photos of Lyuba in her green pantsuit: two of Lyuba picking apples in Indiana; one of Lyuba biting her lip as she stands – a bit out of sorts - on a foreign street and another of Lyuba resting her head on her son’s shoulder at her 75th birthday.

The most intriguing part of the photomontage is seeing that Indiana orchard populated with four Lyubas, loving one another in a sisterly, motherly or childlike way. The multiplicity effect is nothing short of stunning because it proves that the root of Lyuba’s more negative, cynical self - and her more na├»ve, trusting self – no doubt existed some time before her dying days. Ultimately, you can’t help but fall in love with all her multiple personalities.

A friend once sighed how she wished she could capture how funny her mother really was and how much they made each other laugh. Part of what was so sad about her mother’s death at 62 was how close they had become just in the last few years. Now every time she thought of her mother, Marlene couldn’t conjure up the vivacious, funny woman she remembered. She could only see the more recent image of her mother emaciated from cancer.

“It’s as if time collapses,” Marlene would tell me. “Like one of those timelines of earth’s history you see in text books – a yardstick long. Here are these different developments – and then there’s mankind, and it’s infinitesimal!” For Marlene and for many of us, all we ever want is a way to magnify those tiny little ticks on the yardstick we call Life.

People often ask: why in that apple orchard did I decide to drape Lyuba’s arm around a chimpanzee instead of her own son? Here is my answer: magic in symbolism. The year in which Lyuba died was The Year of the Monkey. Tradition has it that monkeys possess the complete opposite extremes of character: foolishness and accountability. “It is because monkeys are most similar to human beings … reflections of man as represented in animal form,'' explains Lee Tae-hee, researcher at the National Folk Museum of Korea.

By making Lyuba’s object of affection a monkey– I am creating a piece of artwork that begs for interpretation. Is Lyuba nurturing those two extreme qualities of foolishness and accountability in herself? Is she deriving sustenance from the chimp, and that’s why she appears in all those incarnations, full of purpose and pep? In therapeutic photomontage, there is a time to keep family in and a time to keep family out, depending on who’s the patient. In this story, it was important to take Lyuba’s multiple selves out on a class outing … and leave the family at home.