METROPOLITAN DIARY: EAST TEXAS EDITION

Last week, after wrapping up an assignment in Tyler, Texas, I decided I would take blue highways on my way home. I had taken my twin-lens reflex camera with me, and hoped to stumble on landscapes, houses, and signs that would yield fun photographs.

The backroads did not disappoint. And after what had been a cold and overcast morning, the sun broke through the clouds in the afternoon, giving me some fun photographs and beautiful light.

I saw the sign below on the opposite side of the road as I drove through Ben Wheeler. I was going to pass on it, but something nagged at me and I doubled back and took a few shots. Shortly after I started making a U-turn to get back on the road, I slammed on the brakes because several things flew off the passenger seat and the camera almost tumbled onto the car floor.

While I tidied up the passenger seat, a woman had pulled over on the other side of the road, and approached my car. I was surprised to see her, and thought, Oh boy, she’s going to ask me why I was taking pictures, someone saw me taking pictures and was weirded out by that.

But no, that was not it. She wanted to know whether I was OK. I lowered the window and after I told her that I was, she said she and her passengers were wondering if they needed to pray for me. I told her that was sweet and reassured her I was OK, and explained that I had stopped because the passenger seat was a mess.

She insisted.

As she walked back to her car she said, “We’re going to pray for you tonight. We all could use that these days, right?” I laughed, told her that was true, again thanked her for her kind and sweet gesture, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas. Then we both went on our way.

THE NINETEENTH AMENDMENT: A LEGACY IN PORTRAITS

A few months ago, I started working on a portrait project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, and to remember the American women suffragists who for decades fought long and hard to force their government— and those to come— to recognize women had the right to vote.

It seems fitting that I wrap it up on the day that we learn that the American people have chosen the country’s first female vice president.

The women who participated in this project wrote essays that reflect on the legacy of the women suffragists. Please take a moment to listen to them and enjoy the photographs.

Dallas vignettes: Post office edition

Last week, while at a U.S. Post Office, where I’d gone to mail a package I couldn’t mail from home, I overheard several statements that shocked me: I’ve never mailed anything in my life, I don’t know what I need to do, I don’t know how to fill out an envelope.

Incredulous, I turned my head as I wrote out the name of the addressee on my envelope, and saw that the person uttering these statements was a man who was about my age. He was befuddled and upset because (I later learned) he needed to get a check out to a finance concern, and he was very annoyed that he couldn’t make the payment online.

After the attendant patiently explained to him what his options were (Priority Mail, Priority Mail Express, first-class postage), the man walked over to the counter I was at to fill out the envelope he would use.

As he filled out his envelope, I asked him my first question: I’m sorry, but did I hear you say that you’ve never mailed anything in your life?

Yep, he said. He hadn’t filled out an envelope since middle school.


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The man, who patiently entertained my questions, was good natured and chatty.

He shared that his name was Edward and that he was 38 years old. Because he had lived in the same city near Dallas pretty much his entire life, and his family members lived within blocks from one another, he’d never had to mail letters or birthday cards or anything of the sort.

Still flabbergasted, I pressed him: So, you’ve never mailed a birthday card, a thank you card?

Nope.

My questions kept coming. You’ve never received a birthday card in the mail?

Yes, he said. From his investment company.

That, I told him, doesn’t count.

To know me is to know I love to mail things. Cards, bread, cookies, postcards. I once mailed the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue and Colombian flan mix to a friend stationed in Baghdad.

Before I left, I shared with him I had been mailing things for years, including to faraway places like Japan and Iraq; that you can buy shipping labels for packages going to Mexico on the U.S. Postal Service website; that some of the Postal Service packaging is free.

I also told Edward that I hoped that someday, he gets a birthday card in the mail— one that counts.

Amid family photographs, a surprise

This is a story about serendipity.

When two of my younger siblings and I went home last fall, my mother gave each of us two envelopes with photographs my grandmother (and perhaps other family members) had taken with her when she, my father and my aunt left Cuba in the 1960s. My mother had us draw numbers and we were given the envelopes with the corresponding numbers.

There were family photographs, but also many photographs of family friends. Among the photographs of friends that I received was the black and white you see below. It is a picture of Elena Herrera and Alberto Moya, who where neighbors to my father in their hometown of Cienfuegos.

I had the good fortune of meeting Elena and Alberto when I visited Cienfuegos on our epic Cuba trip with Manny Mendoza and Marta Crawford in October 2017. Elena is a retired piano teacher who has taught professional pianists who tour the world, and Alberto is a retired engineer. They are a delightful and engaging couple, and have four children and several grandchildren, including two lovely granddaughters we met.

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Elena and Alberto (center) on their wedding day.

That is a picture of Elena and Alberto’s wedding day, and they evidently sent it to my grandmother almost 50 years ago. The back of the photograph says, “With affection, to our longtime friends, a memento of our wedding.” It’s signed by both of them and dated June 1971. (Alberto is the young man on Elena’s left.)

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Elena and Alberto at their home in Cienfuegos.

Elena was one of my father’s playmates, and her mother was good friends with my grandmother. She shared memories that revealed the closeness they had.

She recalled that my grandfather helped her with her English language homework. When one of her grandparent’s died, my grandparents looked after her while her parents dealt with funeral services. When she gave me a tour of the house my father grew up in, she pointed to the spot where my paternal great-grandmother used to sit to have her café con leche, the much sweeter Cuban version of a latte.

She also remembered the day my grandmother, a recent widow, told her mother she was leaving because things were going to get bad. In the days that followed, Elena watched her take family heirlooms to relatives and friends who stayed behind. Soon after, my grandmother, father and aunt left Cuba for Miami. My grandmother, who died in 1993, never returned.

Elena, Alberto and I stay in touch, and I talked to them about a week ago on WhatsApp. It was good see them and to hear their voices.

Voices of Dallas: Evan Montoya and Edan Montoya are still serving up carnitas and lengua tacos – for now.

Dallas brothers Evan Montoya and Edan Montoya run Taqueria Pedrito, the taco restaurant their father opened more than four decades ago. Their business is among  many that have taken a hit as authorities around the country restrict people’s day-to-day activities to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Montoyas said they haven’t let go any of their employees, but don’t know how much longer they can keep serving up their their signature Mexico City-style tacos. Last Saturday afternoon, they made time to chat with me at their eatery on Jefferson Boulevard, one of the few mom-and-pop businesses still open on that usually busy drag.

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Photography exhibits and printing photographs

Looking forward to seeing the exhibit of photographs of national and international celebrities taken by the late Dallas photographer Andy Hanson at SMU Fondren Library. For more on that exhibit, read Rick Brettell’s review in the The Dallas Morning News. I already know the picture of Michael Caine lighting a cigarette with a candle will me among my top ten.

There’s a line in the review that made me think of the Gordon Parks exhibit at Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Brettell says Hanson’s memorable photographs were a result of snapping key moments, his gift of composition, and “wizardry” in the darkroom.

Learning to print photographs well – to deepen the blacks, to give the photograph more depth (or not, I guess) – is hard. I’ve known for years that it’s not something I will do well, because I don’t have a natural understanding of light, have always been intimidated by enlargers and filters, and because I’ve never taken the time to learn to understand any of that.

Two exhibits at Amon Carter Museum of American Art have highlighted photographers that were master printers and in doing so, has given the process the recognition it deserves: the Dave Heath and the Gordon Parks exhibits. Personally, those exhibits, and Mark Birnbaum‘s keen eye and commentary, have made me appreciate the art of printing photographs in a way I had not.

https://www.dallasnews.com/arts-entertainment/visual-arts/2019/12/08/heres-how-the-rich-and-famous-did-dallas-the-way-one-photographer-saw-it/

 

 

The complex legacies of our parents

On a recent holiday weekend, I resolved to tackle several piles of cards, printed news articles, and mail I’d accumulated for months. One of the folded pieces of paper I stumbled on was the print out of my father’s eulogy that I used to read it at his funeral. The essay was written by a longtime friend of my dad’s who traveled extensively with him in Latin America in the 1970s when they worked together. 

In the eulogy, his friend recalls that my father was a good-natured colleague, a generous and devoted friend, and a man with a great deal of empathy for other people. As I read it out loud to my husband, I cried. But not for the reasons that would usually come to mind.

My dad was affectionate and loving, but the patience, the understanding, and the empathy he showed others was not on display at home. He was quick to anger and when he did, he became coarse and mean. When he lost his temper, he could be verbally abusive and violent.

Not surprisingly, his behavior took a toll on me, my mother, my siblings, and other members of my family. We don’t talk about it much with one another, but I am not alone in struggling to reconcile that part of him with the funny, loving, and gregarious man we also knew him to be. 

My father and I were very close. He was the stable and the more present parent in my childhood. Whereas I was as different from my biological mother as I could possibly be, my father and I seemed to be two peas in a pod. He nurtured in me an interest in pens, history, and a healthy skepticism for authority (though he didn’t appreciate it when that skepticism was extended to him).

I revered him and tried to emulate him as much as I could. We went through a rough patch as I asserted my independence in college, but that resolved itself. I had the privilege of caring for him in the months leading to his death from Parkinson’s Disease complications. Several weeks before he died, my dad asked me to help him track down the longtime friend who wrote his eulogy.

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Shortly before he died, I asked my dad what he wanted to be when he was a young man. He said he had wanted to be a dad. I laughed, but I believed him. Because he loved being a dad and was devoted to his family. And he instilled in my siblings and me an appreciation of our family history that we are passing on to his grandchildren. 

In recent years, however, I’ve wanted to distance myself from my father as much as I could. 

The hurt and anger that built in me as a result of his offensive behavior revealed itself with clarity after he died, and that made me more hurt and more angry. As a result, I buried the love and affection I felt for him, along with the memories of the commendable qualities I knew he had and that his friend recognized in his tribute. It’s been tough to deal with, in part, because I’ve recognized I’ve behaved in the same unpleasant ways. 

Re-reading the eulogy appears to have had a healing effect. It reminded me there were things about my dad that were good, and that they are alive in me and my siblings. It reminded me that I love and miss him. I needed to remember all of that.