Thursday, April 1st, 2010
“There are other books out there that go into the stories of Alzheimer’s, which are really sad, but this is really a celebration of her life.”
It was two Sundays ago when I showed my mother Jeannette Montgomery-Barron’s new book, My Mother’s Clothes. Thing is, I wasn’t talking to her about my latest freelance gig; I was actually trying to distract her—in church. It wasn’t working. I know, you don’t get it. You don’t get the fact that my reading Jeannette’s book to my own mom was tragically ironic.
Or maybe it was just sad. Possibly humorous. I’m not really sure.
Funny and sad are intertwined, and “happy” is a word I reserve for special occasions, like “love.”
Turning the pages, I read to her out-loud and pointed to each beautifully shot photograph.
Then somewhere in the mix, as often happens, I became the mother and she became the child.
And so the common thread emerges.
Montgomery-Barron’s book is a memoir and a poignant tribute to her own mother, who passed away in 2007 from Alzheimer’s disease. My mom is living somewhere in the murky, muddled middle stages of vascular dementia—one of the many diseases that fall under the umbrella that is dementia—Alzheimer’s being the most common, with some five million Americans living with the disorder.
Montgomery-Barron and I compare notes.
Eleanor Morgan Montgomery Atuk started losing her memory about 10 years ago. Her only daughter was in her early 40s. In the beginning, her mother tried to cover it up—they all play that game, you know, including my own mom. You want to believe their stories, sometimes elaborately (albeit disjointed) concocted tales of why they missed an appointment or forgot to do something important.
You want to believe the stories and the lies because the alternative is unbearable.
It’s grotesque, actually.
Montgomery-Barron could have told you that story. Instead, she chose to celebrate Eleanor’s life by telling her story through words and still life photographs of clothes, accessories and other personal effects. Each piece was carefully shot against a background that also served as a reminder of the author’s life with her mother, essentially layering one memory upon another to create an album that is a touching portrait of the woman who taught Montgomery-Barron to always carry “mad money” on her dates. “If you get mad, you can just leave.”
Montgomery-Barron has spent her entire career behind the lens. Her work is housed in several museums across the country and her images have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Interview. So when her mother started losing her memory, it only made sense to use photography to help her mother remember—at one point, Eleanor forgot her daughter’s name, but recalled when and where she wore a particular outfit. Ultimately, photographing her mother’s clothes became Montgomery-Barron’s way of coping with the disease and her mother’s eventual decline.
My Mother’s Clothes paints an endearing, yet powerful portrait of this beloved mother and fashion maven who was once voted “Best Legs” of Atlanta. Eleanor never saw the culmination of her daughter’s efforts, but it’s clear this was a woman who lived life fully, and with great zest, passion, strength and grace.
I talked to Montgomery-Barron via Skype from her home in Rome.
You took an interesting approach to the memoir, why decide to let the images lead the story instead of the words?
I knew I could write and I was really pushed to do it. As my husband said, “The other shoe hasn’t dropped yet.” He was really very supportive, but he said, “I think you have to write.” And I did. Other people were pushing me to write, including my editor who wanted me to write more and more, until really a few weeks before I had to turn in everything. I have to say, it’s opened up a new world for me in terms of thinking about doing both together. But I did want the photographs to be front and center.
Did you think the photos would be enough to satisfy the reader—to satisfy someone who might be going through what you went through?
I’m not an expert on Alzheimer’s, and really I was just telling my story and I didn’t want to get into the sad reality of the Alzheimer’s—it’s not a pretty disease. There were a lot of tough moments and I didn’t really want to remember those things. I wanted to remember the good moments, happy moments.
Can you elaborate on why you didn’t chronicle the disease itself? I mean there are a lot of books about the subject. Why was it important to you to share your mother’s life before Alzheimer’s with the reader, instead of talking about why this is such a horrible disease?
It was important, I think, partly because I knew she wouldn’t have wanted me to talk about those moments, and she was, as you can probably tell, very proud—image was everything for her. Well, not everything, that’s an overstatement—her image was important. I just wanted to protect that part in my writing. I know I’m going to be asked to talk about it, but with the book I didn’t want to do that and it was really to protect her.
Your mom had an impressive wardrobe. Why did you choose the pieces you chose to tell the story?
I had memories attached to those particular pieces of clothing. Secondly, I had to think about what I could photograph and what would turn out well in a photograph. But the main thing was, I had to have an immediate instinct to photograph that piece of clothing. Take that white sequence jacket—I’ve seen my mother wear it so many times, on so many occasions—it spoke to me. Interestingly enough, I thought she didn’t remember that I had taken her clothes. And when I was coming through the door one day, she asked me, “Where’s that white sequence jacket?”
How did the book evolve?
I knew these clothes were going to go somewhere. We knew that wherever we moved her to, there would never be room. So I wanted to catalogue them for her. I actually photographed them, made some Epson prints and put them in a nice book for my mother and brought them to her. When I saw how she reacted, I thought this is something different… this is not just for her, but it was for me and for other people too. It was therapy for me. It was my way of coping. That’s the way I feel—if you cant deal with something, try to make art out of it. Get it out. Get it out somehow.
When did you realize this is something more, this could be a book?
When people started reacting to it. People connected to it, even people who don’t know anything about Alzheimer’s. People loved the idea of it. I almost gave up several times. I was thinking, I am never going to find a publisher. I can’t deal with this anymore. My husband kept me going. He kept telling me: you’re going to do it. He was my cheerleader.
I think what I liked most was that you showed glimpses of Eleanor’s personality before developing Alzheimer’s. One page that struck me was the orange tunic—after the divorce, she took up smoking and cut her hair. It seemed so not Eleanor.
It was 1970. Everything was changing and people becoming more liberated. I think she just decided, “Hey I’m going to try something new.” It was the only time she had her hair short like that. And then the smoking. I think it was a fashionable thing to do and it looked pretty good. I remember her smoking and thinking, This is weird. She never smoked before. And then I remember thinking that she doesn’t even know how to smoke! She’s not even doing right. For her it was like an accessory.
Toward the end of the book, I started getting sad. I can relate to a lot of what you were saying—like the role reversal. Do you feel the necklace you paired with the words worked and why?
The necklace—it’s interesting because it has a flaw. It has a dent in it. But somehow it just works. It’s about losing something or about something being defective. So I think that’s the connection. That’s what I get out of it.
How much did your editor play a role in helping you pair the images with the words?
Huge. She was art directing the book in a sense. I’ve always been involved with books, but ultimately I leave it up to the designer to have a huge say in the matter, and I felt that same way with Katrina Fried. She would always have a good reason why she wanted take something out or add something. Last August, she wanted me to take more pictures and I was protesting. I had had enough and I didn’t want to do more. Yet somehow she got me to do it. I guess it’s everyone’s great dream to have someone that good who understands your work.
You were clearly tired at this point.
It was emotional, but I had to go back—back into that place where all of her furniture and clothes are stored. I just didn’t want to do it. It was just too sad for me, but I did it and I did it in three days. I knew I had to be methodical about it and get it done. You know the white pants that are hanging in the window? That was one she pushed me to take last summer and I am really glad I took it.
What the most challenging aspect of writing this memoir?
Just trying to get it out before she died. A lot of the photographs were taken after her death—maybe a quarter of them. I don’t know why I wanted to get it out before she died—it’s not like she would have understood it, well, maybe she would have. That’s the thing. A lot of people assume that somebody with Alzheimer’s is not registering everything that’s being said, and I don’t think that’s true—I think Alzheimer’s patients take in a lot more than we think.
It’s a gross disease. But we don’t talk about it very much. We don’t hear about the details—behaviors can be shocking and jarring at times. I know you didn’t go into a lot of the aspects of the disease that aren’t very pretty, but how has the response been by others who are dealing with this similar situation?
I think they are grateful—there are other books out there that go into the stories of Alzheimer’s, which are really sad, but this is really a celebration of her life. I think if I put all the other things in there, it would have been a totally different book.
Finally, Jeannette Montgomery Barron, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
One must look with the heart.
Kathy Ritchie is a Phoenix, Arizona-based freelance writer who writes about her own mother in her blog, My Demented Mom. You can follow her on Twitter @mydementedmom.
VISIT Jeannette Montgomery-Barron’s Website and photographs .
BUY My Mother’s Clothes.
LEARN more about dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and how you can help.