So I went to Nova Scotia in July, where my family has a little house and a lot of land on the Bay of Fundy. My 87 year-old mother and all six of us children were there with some of our spouses and children.
It’s interesting how we all grew up in the same family and how we manage to have so many different points of view on everything. I’ll say that if you put the six of us into the same room, you will hear twelve different opinions. We established a “no politics” rule when we were in Nova Scotia, partly because we wanted to get through the week without throwing anything at each other. Our rule worked well, but many of us watched the Democratic National Convention at night and then got into little huddles to talk about it.
I have heard it said that every child grows up in a different family. Well, I would say that everyone in my family has grown up in a different country, where the same things have happened, but they mean different things, are given different emphasis, and laced with different opinions and placed in a different context. And for some of us, the differences are bigger than for others.
But this is how we're the same. My grandfather’s favorite song was the French National Anthem. This was because it was illegal for him to sing it in what was then pre-revolutionary Russia. I am proud because despite the fact that he was in the Czar’s personal guard, he managed to think for himself. When he got to this country, my grandfather sang it all the time, and long after he died, the six of us children would sing it, in French and in English, whenever we drove around in our car, while my father listened with tears in his eyes. (Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé!) So there was this idea of freedom, what it meant to be able to sing any song we wanted.
I knew that democracy was important, and I’m struggling now to define what that meant to my father. It’s so easy to say some words, and we’ve heard them so much that we almost forget what they mean. All I can tell you is that my father worked very hard. He was responsible for quality control in a company that made helicopters for the Vietnam War and he went in at six in the morning and came home for dinner and then he went back until ten at night. He did this for years. Because he was a supervisor, he did this without overtime pay. The people who worked for him made two or three times what he made, but as much as he needed the money this wasn’t the most important thing to him. He said that his sons or his nephews could be in those helicopters and that none of them would fall from the sky if he could prevent it. It was as if they were all his sons and nephews. It was as if they were all worth any amount of trouble.
When my dad was in his 90’s, it took my mom several hours to get him down to the polls because it was so difficult to get him around with his wheelchair. It was a lot of work, but my father had to do this, because this was sacred to him, the fact that his opinion would be counted, the rare and precious chance to choose.
I grew up with my whole family and my grandmother in her house and I was always trying to make her laugh, because even as a child I knew that she was sad. She had come to this country from Minsk to New York City, the youngest of several children, all by herself, when she was 18 years old. She worked in a sewing factory and when she came home at night, she worked in her garden. She called it her “gardna”, and she said that working there was her vacation, and I knew it was the only vacation she ever had. There was the Bolshevik Revolution and the Menshevik Revolution and she got stuck here, and then she married my grandfather and there was World War I and World War 2, and all of it hit her people right between the eyes. My aunt went back to Russia, finally, I think in the 1980’s, after my grandmother was gone, and she could not find any family.
My father lived through the Red Scare when there was always a danger that as a Russian, he would be branded as a Commie. He also fought in both World War 2 and in Korea and I didn’t know how bad that was for him until I was with him when he was old, when he said things in the middle of night or when he cried out when he was coming out of anesthesia.
It is strange how this has affected me. For example, a few years ago, I was taking pictures of my niece and nephews, and I couldn’t get them to stay still for a minute, I could only follow them around. At one point they happened to arrange themselves against an old barn wall. I smiled and laughed and took some very nice pictures of their beautiful little selves, but inside I found it hard, I still find it hard, really hard, it makes me sick almost, to think of any children against any wall.
So my idea of what is difficult and what could happen in a country is calibrated by my grandmother’s and my father’s experience, against something that was both explicit and implicit in my family the whole time I was growing up: “You are so lucky to be here… to have all this food on your table.” And, “People have died for your freedom.” And, “You carry our future.” And, “Take care of each other.”
I wonder what I could possibly add to the conversation, when there are brilliant people who’ve spent their careers engaging in national discourse. But I feel it’s important to be involved at this time in our history. So I need to be involved and I can only give what I have, so this is it.
When Bill was sick, there were several months when I didn’t know how bad it would be, and of course I was afraid. Of course I was focused on the problem and I wanted to do something that matched the way I was feeling. I wanted to do something radical. So I wanted to move off the island. And I thought and thought, and looked all over the mainland, and I finally stopped for long enough to ask myself what I wanted. And then I thought, “But I love it here.” And then I started to think of what I had. I loved the island. I love my life. I love my husband and our family.
So I learned something. I decided that whenever I have to make a big decision, I will think about what I love. Because that’s what I need to stand on when I think about my problems. Because what I have is so much bigger than my problems, and if I remember that, I might possibly find solutions without throwing my life down the drain. And I also learned that fixing a fear is not the same as fixing a problem. Because I was afraid that Bill might have stage 4 cancer and he only had stage 1 cancer. If I had tried to fix stage 4 cancer, it would have taken so much out of us, and that would have been worse than the problem we actually had.
I have heard it said over and over again that if people want to be in politics there has got to be something wrong with them. But I know how my father felt, how people in my family feel. We care a lot. We all want to help. We won’t be selfish about our country. I won’t do that to the memory of my grandmother or of my father after all they went through. It would make me hate myself. So I don’t think we have to be so cynical. I think we can call to the meaning of our ancestors’ lives, and to what’s best in each other.
I have also learned in taking pictures that if life is difficult, it is also very beautiful. And it seems to me that it’s always yearning forward, seeking and healing and re-making itself. And it defines what’s real, no matter what we say about it. It always runs on what’s real.
I think right now, politically speaking, it’s like we are driving in a snowstorm. And all this snow is falling on our windshields. Somehow we have to look through all of that and find out how to stay on the road.
The world is has changed just like it changed for our grandparents and for our parents. Our children are different than we are. I have been told that they are more like each other, irrespective of national borders, at least in information-laden countries, and more different from us, than we are from each other.
I say this understanding that people are made in layers. I mean, when I say our children are different from us and more like each other, I would say that it’s partly on the surface. There are things underneath, deep things that are learned and hardwired through generations, welded in by our ancestors’ courage and trauma and weakness and love, and those things stay in us even after we forget how they got there. So here are some questions. Do we remember what matters? Do we know where we came from? Do we know what we have? Do we know who we are?
Photography for me has always been about another way of seeing. It’s not that the life or beauty hasn’t been there the whole time. It’s just that I was so used to it that I forgot to notice. So photography has helped me to see again. In some ways, it’s helped me see like a child again, with many surprises and with lots of hope and wonder. I need that right now, in this situation.
I think that facts will win in the long run, but I hope that they will win soon. I hope we can remember what we have and not be afraid, and that we can learn, and that we can sacrifice for each other because people have sacrificed for us. And I know that we are able to be so good, because we are so good, because we are made with the same hand that made the waves and the birds, and because we have come from people who loved us the best that they could. And because we already have such beauty and so many gifts in our lives. Because we can do this right, and if we do, this is what our children will remember and how they will behave when it’s their turn to make the world.