Mum, 1937 – 2023


My mother died this morning. She was one month past her eighty-sixth birthday.

The two things that first spring to mind when I think about my mother was her devotion to family, and her strength. Mum loved being surrounded by her kids and grandkids.

I remember once, one of her grandkids referred to her as “the fun grandmother” because she liked doing activities with them. She loved playing miniature golf with the kids. Any time she went to the Cape, at least a couple of the kids would go with her.

Family was super important to Mum. She liked to entertain, but it was always for family. Easter dinners, birthday parties, big birthday parties for the whole extended family, and of course, her Christmas Eve parties every year.

It’s appropriate that she died during the Christmas season. Mum loved Christmas. She loved riding around looking at the lights, the hustle and bustle, the activity. She loved giving gifts. Every year, she would make dire predictions about how she had to cut back, and that she couldn’t believe how much she was spending on Christmas, and every year, there was a big stack of presents. In hindsight, I don’t think she could help herself — she just loved gift giving, and doing for other people.

Vienna Teng wrote a song called “The Tower”, about one of her friends, “The one who survives by making the lives / Of others worthwhile”. Mum was the Tower. She was the one people came to for help. She was the one who provided a place to stay (and a hair cut for a job interview) when one of Dad’s brothers needed help. She was the one who took in one of my sister’s former roommates when she was doing an internship nearby. She became the family matriarch who was the center.

Mum loved spending time with her cousins Carol and Julie, and her sister Sandra. Later, she became close to her sisters-in-law, especially Diane, Dot, Anne and Phyllis. She and Dad would double date with Diane and George, and she would often get together with Dot for walks and tea, and several times a year, they would talk a trip out to western Massachusetts to see Phyllis.

Mum spent most of her life in this house, the one she grew up in, aside from a couple of years right after she married, and the last couple of years, when it became impossible for her to remain here. She much preferred to help us, than to have us help her, and the last few years were galling to her, to have us taking care of her, rather than having her take care of us. For some reason, it did not amuse her when I told her, “Payback’s a bitch, Mum”.

But if anything exemplifies her strong family feelings, it’s the fact that she (and Dad) managed to instill in all of their children that family is important, and that we need to support each other. The one good thing about these nightmarish last four years, the ONE thing, is the mutual support my siblings have given to her and to me.

Despite what she used to say (“I’m perfect, just ask me!”) Mum was not perfect. She had a sharp tongue and a quick temper, and did not suffer foolishness gladly. Patience was just something she never had. Never did, and she never developed it when she became ill. But her temper also blew over quickly, and she didn’t hold grudges. While she could be very critical, she never had self pity. No matter how angry she could get, I always felt I could come to her with my problems.

The past four years, and especially the past several months were hard on Mum. For someone who was used to being strong and in control and independent, losing the ability to walk, or rely on help for all the activities of daily life drove her to tears.

And so, while I’m impossibly sad right now, this is not a tragedy. It’s just time. I’ve been looking at pictures of her from the past twenty years, and up until the last couple of years, she really did enjoy her life. She loved to laugh, and she loved being the center of her family.

Discoveries in the Details

The most boring, mind-numbing, tedious part of the slide scanning I’ve been doing has to be dealing with the dirt on the scans. Although I did have one slide this week that only took about 5 minutes of work from start to finish, some of them entail hours of work zoomed in close, retouching the scan spot by spot.

And yet… it also means I’m looking at these pictures more closely than I’ve ever looked at them before. And I’m noticing details in them that I never noticed before:

  • In the self portrait of Dad that I posted last week, I noticed he had a pipe in his hand. He almost never smoked a pipe when I knew him; it was always a cigar.
  • There’s a picture of my mother looking at a kiddie train ride somewhere; we’ve never been able figure out where. She doesn’t remember. But you can see a bus in the background, and after lightening up the picture in Photoshop, it looks like it’s in MTA* livery. So it’s probably in the Boston area.
  • There’s a picture of the two of them sitting on a picnic table, which I’d assumed was taken down the Cape. But when I was zoomed in close, I noticed Dad had the same kind of tag on him that was in another picture of my mother, grandmother and great aunt that was taken at Old Sturbridge Village.
  • One of the pictures I worked on in June was a picture of my brother Brian. It’s a long shot of him on a pony, and I’d never looked very closely at the face before. And while their faces are dissimilar, the expression on his face is exactly the same as one I’ve seen on his son Matt’s face dozens of times.
  • In the picture I finished last night, I’m holding Dad’s folding medium format rangefinder camera while he was obviously shooting the slide in 35mm. I don’t remember seeing the medium format pictures–are they prints filed away in albums, or are they the medium format slides I haven’t seen in decades?

I remember Dad’s cameras very well. At the time the picture was taken, I was 14, and I think I was just holding the camera for him–it’s not in the other pictures of me. But eventually he did let me use them, and I used them off and on through the latter years of  high school and college. Both were rangefinders; you focused the camera by superimposing two images in the viewfinder. Neither camera had a light meter or auto exposure; you used the exposure recommendations packaged with the film, and hoped you set the camera right; the batch of slides I’m working on now are almost all a couple of stops overexposed, which I’ve been trying to correct (to some extent) in Photoshop. I tended to favor the 35mm camera because I had a darkroom and was set up for 35mm.

But my photography took a quantum leap upward when I got my first SLR as a college graduation present, about a year after he died. No more guessing at the exposure, just watch the needle. Composition is easier when you can see exactly what the lens sees. And interchangeable lenses! I almost never use the “normal” focal range anymore, but thats what the rangefinder gave you. As good a photographer as Dad was, he was limited by the tools he was using. I wish he’d lived long enough to use my cameras with me.

* Metropolitan Transit Authority: the 1947 – 1964 predecessor to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), also known as the “T”. Boston’s transit agency. 


My Aunt Anne died this morning. We expected it, but it was still a shock when my mother called with the news.

AnneGrowing up, Anne was the only girl in a family of nine children. Her brothers, including my father, were paradoxically protective of her, and at the same time, loved to make her life miserable, in the most brotherly way possible.

For the kids of my generation, Anne was the “fun” aunt. Most of my O’Hara uncles married around the same time, so most of my aunts had kids of their own, and when the families got together, the adults, unsurprisingly, wanted to spend some time with the other grownups. Anne married later, and liked spending time with us kids. She’d take us sledding or skating or even to the Cape. Even after marrying Bob MacAulay, and having kids of her own, Anne still liked having fun with her nieces and nephews. I still remember rollerblading with her down the Cape, about 15 – 20 years ago. It was my sister Nancy, Anne and I on an empty Eastham road.  She’d never used inline skates before— just old fashioned roller-skates —but she picked it up, and had a blast. And, once she and Bob built their own house on the Cape, most family members knew they were welcome there.

I think the thing I’ll remember most about her was her smile and her giggle. She had a lovely smile, mischievous but pretty, and loved to laugh. I’ll miss her.