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family history

PRESERVING STORIES | one year ago today I took pictures in our messy home with a mouse hole


PRESERVING STORIES | one year ago today I took pictures in our messy home with a mouse hole

ONE YEAR AGO today, I pulled out my camera and tripod to take a few pictures of the space we called home before starting our journey to leave it. I left it completely untouched (that's the delicate way to say MESSAY) from the day/week/however long since we had last tidied it up, let Jason stay in his gym clothes (including a tee shirt with a distracting LOGO on it; typically a crime for pictures), okay but I will admit that I did double check that my makeup looked nice. You're going to see lots of dirty laundry and the tin foil we shoved into a hole under the kitchen counter to plug up a mouse hole.

These were just for my sake, not for sharing. The pictures are... not exactly a reflection of my style as a portrait photographer. I thought this would bother me and that I would never share them because of it. Finally looking through these pictures a year later, I never expected to have such an emotional reaction to these seemingly mundane photographs and I want to share exactly why.

We were unknowingly on the tip of, what I consider, the most stressful month we've ever handled together. We ate our meals and did our work in one corner of our bedroom, a spot where the bathroom door and bed are both within arms reach, because only that room had an AC unit. Jason was on a major time crunch to finish his grad school project... in order to graduate... in order for us to leave.. in order for him to start his full time job.

There were so many hard goodbyes to say and so many "I need to see you one last time!" when we knew perfectly well that it wasn't going to happen because we were just too busy, on top of juggling family coming to town for graduation. I sold off our furniture piece by piece and tossed/donated so many of the little things that I only remember now because of these pictures.

Our apartment manager turned very manipulative and dishonest, bringing on extreme stress for myself and hopeful tenants. I had to make so many phone calls and stand up for myself and I haaaaaate confrontation. The lowest point was the day I got in contact with the landlord himself to discuss the manager's deceit.... only to find out that it was his dad.

I was also dealing with some photography clients that were deeply unhappy with me. I don't want to get into any specifics, but as any photographer knows, it absolutely shakes your confidence when this happens. Around this time, I bought my first bottle of fish oil supplements because my hair literally started falling out.

Jason graduated on a Friday afternoon and that same night we packed the little blue car like a jigsaw puzzle that our life depended on - every nook and cranny carefully utilized. On Saturday at 6 AM we said a last goodbye to our little apartment of five years (with a unspoken EFF YOU to our manager's apartment downstairs as I closed the car door).

Sixteen hours later, just one hour from our destination, a very large deer meandered onto the I-90 as we approached 80 miles per hour. We collided. The car was totaled and that deer has gotta be VERY dead somewhere. It happened in slow motion and so fast all at the same time. It was one of those experiences that really jolts you (not physically, we were fortunately unharmed) because for probably the first time in our marriage, Jason was very shaken up and couldn't think straight and I was the calm one. I prompted him to try his best to get the car moved over to side of the road. Within a few minutes, even the emergency hazard lights were dead.

 It was a cruel, sad, ironic fate that the little blue car that my dad had bought me for college lasted juuuuuust long enough to finish out college. In 2009 my roommate and I had driven it on a cross-country road trip out to school and now in 2017, the DAY after my husband's graduation, it went to the grave heading back eastward.

The local sheriff of the population 700 town dropped us off at the one motel (conveniently next to the one gas station and one auto shop and one diner) and six hours later we were navigating South Dakota taxi services and car rentals. Those little midwestern towns aren't quite awake on Sundays, but one service took sympathy on us and the owner came with his wife and dog in the taxi to help us out. Soon enough we were transferring all our belongings from a little blue smashed car into a humble rented mini van.

Jason started work the very next morning.

We utilized our last few hours with the mini van rental to pick up all the boxes we had mailed to ourselves to a friend's address. Jason went through the sea of boxes across our living room floor while I took a long deprived shower. He tapped on the curtain and gently told me that all but one box had made it. It was the box containing my thirteen journals and diaries, started at age five, that was missing. He didn't hesitate to reach through the streaming water, fully dressed, to pick me up as I crumpled to the ground.

If I were to choose one moment in my life of complete sorrow, hopelessness, and pain - this would be it. All my memories, all my memories, were gone. It felt as if my past had died. I can't think of words to adequately describe that heartache. From losing friends in middle school, to feeling on top of the world at summer camps, prom, the annual family camping trip, the wide range of roommate experiences, meeting Jason, marrying Jason, my parents' divorce, every emotion on the spectrum was in there. Every Christmas, even 9/11 is in there, so many doodles of my childhood cat Nippy, every little thought or moment that I deemed journal-worthy for over twenty years was suddenly gone.

That heartache is still there every day, because a year has gone by and the journals never made it here. Despite my efforts with the USPS, we never received any information regarding the lost box. It's actually too painful to research it too deeply, because all sources point to the fact that the USPS throws a lot of stuff away and sells anything worthwhile in a giant "lost stuff" auction in Atlanta, Georgia (wtf?). If the box would have gone back to this original address in Utah by some miracle, our apartment manager that ended things so dishonestly is not someone we can rely on.

It stings constantly and honestly the only way I can bare it is to completely block it out of my mind as much as possible. When these painful memories come to mind, I know that I have about five seconds to switch my train of thought before I start slipping down a hole of absolute grief.

When I took these pictures a year ago today, I had no idea that following month would lead to all this. The goodbyes, the stress, a giant chapter ending, a car crash, a giant chapter starting, and losing such a beloved part of myself, all comes back when I look at these messy little pictures of ourselves from back then. Nothing can ever replace what I lost and I don't expect myself to ever "get over" it, but the experience has renewed and refined my passion for record keeping, family history, journaling, documenting, picture taking, story telling, remembering, recording, writing, listening, preserving.

In the past year since then, it's plain to see how clearly these passions have taken hold. First, I started journaling again... digitally.

In the fall, I orchestrated a massive family history project collecting memories of my Gramps from all his children and grandchildren. I organized everyone's memories into a book and we gave it to him for his 80th birthday.

I finally caught up on making family photo albums - we've got one book for every year from 2011 up to now! It is honestly my least favorite task in the world, but I care deeply about the final printed product because all the family snapshots we took since our first point and shoot in 2003 are totally gone. Those were the days before people really understood digital archiving or external hard drives! I think it's so important to have a digital record and a printed record of your favorite family pictures just in case.

I'm making a A-Z alphabet book with watercolor paintings for our baby (he'll be born almost exactly a year after that car accident day) and it's chalk full of references to our lives before he was born and our family history. 

My sister and I took a story about our Grandma Kaiser and turned it into a full out photoshoot! I've got lofty ideas to do more like this sometime in the future.

And of course, if you've been around this website of mine at all, you'll know that I've pushed preserving stories as the most important part of my mission. If you've watched either of my intro videos, "she loves what kind of pictures?" and "totally random things about me!!" you know that bits and pieces of what I've written in this post are in there as well. 

Preserving stories is ME now. It's the whole focus of my business as a photographer, my goal as an artist, and my "why" as a human being.

I wish I could end here with "I'm so grateful for this trial because it taught me this important thing" but that would be a lie. Looking at this picture of all my journals laid out before we boxed them up hurts. I hate that this happened more than anything else I've ever experienced, but I'm trying my best to build myself up from it by focusing on what I have still yet to create.


INSPIRED BY GRANDMA | Grandma Kaiser and the nudists


INSPIRED BY GRANDMA | Grandma Kaiser and the nudists

Are your childhood memories scattered with odd, fragmented pieces of family stories that you've never quite heard in their entirety? You're not even sure it's factual in the slightest? I love those little nugget stories. I love all stories and the main goal of my photography is to preserve stories - those of couples, spouses, families, all of it. So when the idea popped into my head to turn one of my own family's nugget stories into a very loosely based theme for a portrait shoot, it didn't take long to get the ball rolling. I told my sister about the idea, the next day we were thrifting for the outfit and the vintage camera, and the next day we were shooting. In the middle of all that, I finally had the conversation with my mom to confirm whether or not GRANDMA KAISER AND THE NUDISTS actually happened... so here's the story.

MOM: Grandma and Pop Pop didn’t like to drive. Pop Pop would fly, but Grandma didn’t like to fly… so they basically didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t go anywhere growing up… [but] they decided to take us on a family vacation and it was only in Middletown, which was like a 45 minute drive.

EMILY: Like to the beach?

MOM: No, it was in Middletown.. like in the middle of the state. And they had this little family resort there-

EMILY: OOOH. Like in Dirty Dancing.

MOM: Yeah! Yeah.

EMILY: Awesome.

MOM: They had cabins, you know, kinda nice cabins. They had a lake and a pool, and they had a lodge, and it must have been about 1969.

MOM: *Looks directly into my eyes*

MOM: And that was the time of the hippies.



MOM: And they happen to be marching through Middletown when we were there - oh! And it was called “Happy Acres!” You can Google it. That was the name of the resort.

MOM: And so… we were, you know, there, and all of a sudden these hippies came marching down the road and they saw that there was a pond off to the side and they... some of them... took off all their clothes… and jumped in it!

MOM: And Grandma snapped a couple ‘a shots of ‘em.

EMILY: That's a really good story.

EMILY: …what did she do with the pictures?

MOM: She put them in the photo album!

MOM: And you know what too? It was like off in the distance, the people, and you know back then we didn’t have good cameras, you know, so it was like a little fuzzy and uh, the guy was like, you know, he wasn’t like..

EMILY: Up close?

MOM: Yeah, up close.

EMILY: That’s a really good story.

So there it is. As it turns out, that little nugget story from a vague childhood memory was..... actually the entire story. But I love it because it perfectly encapsulates the peculiar Grandma Kaiser that I remember. The main additional detail that really sparked our interest was that "Happy Acres" was akin to "Kellerman's" in Dirty Dancing. Even both in the 60s! My sister and I debated, "So, is Grandma Baby?" "Wait, no, she was the mom. That means OUR MOM was Baby." Omg.

Since our Grandma Kaiser would have been nearly 40 at the time, we decided to knock back her style a decade or so earlier - more alike to the style she would have been partial to from her young adulthood. Though it was made clear that Happy Acres was not a beach resort ("Middletown... like in the middle of the state") we took some artistic liberty there keep the whole scheme with a sepia-esque warmth all over, from the lighting, the sand, to the color palette of the outfit.

And because I have an affinity for any IMDB Trivia page, here's a few random fun facts...

  • We lucked out finding a vintage Baldina camera that aligns with the time era that Grandma Kaiser would have been buying a camera. Baldina is a German camera company and our family history is heavily German. My sister (in this shoot) is named HEIDI for goodness sake and I just got Emily?!
  • The old photos you see scattered through this post are from Grandma Kaiser and Pop Pop's wedding day in 1961. Grandma Kaiser passed away in 2008 and Pop Pop joined her almost exactly 10 years later.
  • My sister was the natural choice for this shoot, especially given the fact that out of the three siblings in our family, she tends to look most like our Kaiser relatives. 
  • And one last shout out to Heidi the German sister model, because as warm and glowy and gold these pictures look, it was SO COLD. The wind on the Long Island Sound in March is not kind. But I can't deny I love the way the wind tousled those grandma curls. Worth. It.
  • I have yet to see the photos that Grandma Kaiser took of the nudists, but somewhere in some box... they exist.