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From Mom: Photo Essay

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“I’m turning into my mother.” 

This declaration often reflects resentment or disapproval. But if we look at it in another light, it’s profoundly magical how this becoming is unconscious. It doesn’t take much for the transformation to occur. We slip on a jacket and slide into a part of them. After clipping our hair a certain way or clasping a pair of their earrings, subtle adjustments in our mannerisms and posture often follow. It’s a kind of ancestral alchemy. 

Every so often, I’ll receive a compliment about the ring I wear on my left hand, reminding me to look down at it. My great-grandfather, whom I had never met, gave the ring to my grandmother on her 16th birthday. When I turned 16, she passed it down to me. I haven’t taken it off since, so it sometimes takes a new voice to bring my grandmother into focus again. There are many moments like that. After I accidentally shrunk one of her wool tunics, I peeled back the collar to find the label to see where she got it. I’m not only trying to replace the item; I’m trying to figure out how my maternal icons cultivated their unique styles. 

Even small adornments can remind us that family is still with us. And on a day like Mother’s Day, when there can be so much longing for unattainable closeness, it’s a saving grace to know that keeping their possessions reaches beyond physical presence. We don’t need to share a brunch table to acknowledge our mothers or mother figures. Touching a metal pendant they used to wear, or smoothing our hands along the texture of braids plaited like theirs, is enough. Whether our mothers are here, far, or gone, we can embody and carry them close by inheriting a bit of their style.

In this series of photographs, I asked other writers and artists to share how they connect with their matriarchs by showing me the different ways they honor them through jewelry, make-up, hair, or clothes.

 

When Gianna Biscione’s grandmother, Angelina Messina Marino, heard that her daughter was pregnant, she decided to get ahold of all the jewelry she could for her soon-to-arrive granddaughter. She would make pilgrimages to Italy in the summers to find certain gold pieces and trips to the Jewelers Exchange in New York City to have them engraved with her granddaughter’s name in anticipation of gifting the items to her one day. 

 

“I wasn’t allowed to wear the gold jewelry regularly until my mother, Dina, was sure I could be trusted, and the locket was especially off-limits until womanhood. Having the heart-shaped necklace in my full possession, I’ve been experiencing a sense of longing that I thought would disappear with its touch. There is no picture inside; I will choose that as my relationship with the piece develops, but the pressure feels immense. Raised by a single mother and her village, emancipated from my father, and constantly grieving my grandmother, I love too many to make that decision.”Gianna Biscione

 

Gianna’s memories of her grandmother influence her work as a sculptor. She recently discovered her grandmother’s wedding photos in a white satin box of slide film. As part of her upcoming undergraduate thesis work, she enlarged the pictures on transparent paper, allowing light to shine through them. 

 

Angela Balcita and her daughter Nico Doyle have a relationship that reminds people around them of the Gilmore Girls. They share clothes, jewelry, and make-up, but they also go to the same school. Angela is a teacher, and Nico is a student, but that doesn’t stop people from mixing them up. 

 

“When she was little, she was like my little doll. I was so happy to have a girl because I thought, ‘Oh, I can just dress her up like my doll.’ And I did for maybe two years. And then, at some point, she was like, ‘I can dress myself.’ And then it was very clear that she had her own vision for how she wanted to look. So that didn’t last too long. It’s nice to see that her style is not so off from mine. They’re not exactly the same—she’s a little hipper, a little younger, but we rhyme with each other. The color or the tone of the outfits are not completely in lockstep, but we circle each other.” – Angela Balcita

 

This spring is Nico’s last academic year before going to the upper school where Angela teaches. Mornings sound like, “Tights? No tights? Hoops? No hoops?” Angela and Nico say, almost in unison. This moment marks the beginning of the last chapter of these daily routines of getting dressed together. 

 

Tula Honkala’s mom, Judy Stone, was deciding whether or not to cut her hair. Having always admired their mother’s red hair, Tula insisted that she keep some of her long locks. “Her hair was almost down to her butt, and I think it’s really cool and punk to have really long red hair without it being cut—it’s more punk than a punk cut,” Tula says. In an act of love, Judy kept some strands long, which she would braid to keep them out of the way. Two years later, Tula subconsciously started to braid their hair in a similar way. They didn’t realize they were sporting parallel looks until we got together to take pictures.

 

“Going into her closet and putting on her clothes is like ‘oh, this is going to be good!’ – Tula Honkala

 

“I remember when I was little, [my parents] were trying to have enough money to survive. My mom, for a while, sold this thing called Queensway to Fashion. It was like Amway but clothing. This was the early ‘70s/late ‘60s. My mom would always have these racks of clothes, and she would have these big parties, and women would come over and buy stuff. And to me, as a five-year-old, the clothes looked really cool. There was a leopardskin coat that she had and some other cool late ‘60s cutting-edge fashion things. When I was in 11th grade and coming out to DC for the punk rock scene, I snuck her leopardskin coat out of the closet, cut it up, and made a vest out of it. She didn’t know about it for years, and she was still upset when she found out.” – Judy Stone

 

Linnea Poole, an artist specializing in fiber arts, has fond memories of her grandmother buying her a fancy dress each year. When she had her daughter, Sarai, she honored her grandmother’s tradition by getting special dresses for Sarai to wear. With Sarai on the precipice of turning 10, Linnea wonders how this heartfelt ritual will evolve as her daughter ages into choosing her own clothes.

 

“In the early ’90s, I would receive American Doll catalogs and books. Although I lived on a small street in East Baltimore, I dreamt of having a doll one day. My grandmother promised me that she would get the money for me to have one soon, but she transitioned. As a way of paying homage, when Sarai was four, I took her to the American Girl store in DC, and she never wanted to leave. It is now a tradition where my mother and I take her every season and spend her birthday there. Sarai owns eight dolls, including the first Black American Girl doll of the year, Gabriella.”- Linnea Poole

 

“My little human is nine years old and is my lifeline; the key to my work and creating legacy. My art belongs to her. I want Sarai to carry it on for generations of our bloodline.” – Linnea Poole

 

Regina Maria DeLuise and her mother, Rita Marie DeLuise, share the same initials. So it made perfect sense for Rita to give Regina her gold bracelet engraved with those same letters. Regina first fell in love with her mother’s elegant clothes by looking at family pictures. Eventually, Regina and one of her older sisters, Candida, made their way into their mother’s closet. One item that they took turns wearing was a long gray gabardine wool coat with a cinched waist and a massive skirt. Regina wore it throughout her time at art school in New York City. Sadly, moths got the wool, but these precious jewelry pieces remain. 

 

“I’ve worn the pearl ring since college, or perhaps before. My dad bought two pearl rings when he was in Japan after WWll: one for his sister and one for his future wife. I love that he was thinking this way… so romantic. It was my mother’s original engagement ring, but my grandmother thought it wasn’t a proper ring. Her mother wanted my mom to have a diamond ‘like everyone else.’ Of course, my dad then gave my mom a beautiful diamond ring, which she always wore. I don’t think I ever saw her wear this pearl ring. I wore it for years without knowing the pearl was a bigger, fake pearl that my mom ‘stuck on there’ when she lost the original. This was when she was mothering four young children. Jewelry and special things for herself were not a priority. I just found a picture taken on 66th Street—me on her lap as a baby, and she’s wearing the ring with the fake pearl! When I got my first job and had two nickels to rub together, I had a real pearl put in and the prongs extended so as not to lose the pearl again.” – Regina DeLuise

 

Across the top of a lavender-painted bookshelf, Elaine Sorel, my maternal grandmother, kept her jewelry and perfume. One especially unusual object was this metal hand with all of her larger rings. Sabella Kahn, my younger sister, is now the custodian of them. Though our grandmother’s hands became more fragile and thin with age, she still managed to wear heavy rings with ease. 

 

“The first time I ever went into Nana’s closet was after she passed away. At her funeral service, I realized that I only got to know her as an older grandma. Hearing all the stories about her young, rebellious, brave, and innovative life was eye-opening. Looking at her style, I felt like I was beginning to understand all that she was. Her colorful coats were made specifically for her by one of her close friends. Trying them on made me feel that she and I had so much more in common than I had ever realized. Beliefs, passions, style. It was sad to learn this so late. But this awakening also awakened something in me. I began to understand who I was and be as brave in my passions as she was.” – Sabella Kahn

 

Wearing these clothes is different from storing them. The body keeps them in motion and accumulates more experiences. What was once “hers” becomes “ours.” 

 

 

Dedicated to Rebecca Schwartz, Shoshana Kahn, Elaine Sorel, Nancy Sorel, Linda Small, and Madeline Sorel Kahn

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