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The Girl Behind the Camera

by Alan Fox 2 Comments
The Girl Behind the Camera

In 1920 an eight-year-old girl answered the door of a photography studio in New York City. She greeted the young man who was scheduled to have his portrait taken. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but my dad is the photographer and he isn’t here so I’ll take your portrait photo myself.” And she did.  Except that she did not know how to take a proper portrait, so she had to fake it.

“We should have the proofs for you next week,” she said as the customer left.

The girl was my mother.  Her father, the professional photographer, was my grandfather.

The way my mother used to tell this story was that her father loved to go fishing, and was not a great businessman.  So from time to time he would be out fishing when customers arrived for their appointment, and she had to fill in.  A few days later he would contact the customer to apologize, tell them that their photographs had not turned out well, and he would be happy to arrange another sitting.

I never asked Mom for more details.  After all, she would always be available to answer my questions.  Or so I assumed. Except now she isn’t, and so all that I know is what I’ve already shared with you. I suppose that the customer had previously paid for the session, so that no income was ever lost. But since I never asked, I can’t fill in the gaps.

I imagine this has happened to many of us. We waited to ask our loved ones to tell us their stories, and after they are gone we wish we had asked for more.

I thought about all this today shortly after the news broke that Kobe Bryant, the superstar professional basketball player, had died, together with one of his teenage daughters and all of the other passengers in a helicopter crash not far from where I live.

Whenever we’re with someone we love, especially our parents, we have an opportunity to form a deeper and more meaningful bond.  One way to do this is to make it a point, as much as possible, to ask about family history.  Since I typically live “in the moment,” I never asked my parents very much about their personal past.  If you challenged me to name even one of my eight great grandparents, I wouldn’t be able to do it.  Sadly, I don’t know anything about any of them.

My mom must have had photography in her blood, because she kept many scrapbooks of photos that she and my father took, especially when my brother and I were children.  I have kept those albums to this day. They include photos from more than one hundred years ago – photos I now wish I had asked her about. Now I feel I’m missing important pieces of my family’s story

I do know that during the Great Depression few women attended college. Not only was my mother among a very select group that did attend – she also earned a Master’s degree from Hunter College in New York City.  I know that her father was a professional photographer, and that her mother was domineering.  Beyond that, I know little about my ancestors.  I could look up information on the internet, but somehow that is not the same as hearing the stories firsthand.

We miss opportunities every day.  Kobe was retired so now the only way to see him play professional basketball is on videos.  But the opportunity to learn more about your family’s history may not come your way another time. As someone who wishes he had asked more questions, I’d like to suggest that you gather as many stories as you can. Then you’ll be able to pass those on to your children and loved ones – when, in turn, they ask you to share.

Rest in peace Mom.  Rest in peace Grandpa.  Rest in peace Kobe.



Dear Mom

by Alan Fox 0 Comments
Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

It occurred to me this morning that I haven’t given you an update on my life since you died in 1990.  Thirty years is a long time – almost forty percent of my life.  I’m pleased to say that there are many wonderful updates to share with you. And since you always focused on the positive, I won’t burden you with bad news (and there isn’t much of that anyway).

I’m now almost eighty years old, still working at my real estate company and still with Daveen.  We’ve now been together for over forty years, though we did separate for a short time.  I had neck surgery last May, and I’m still recovering. You’ll be happy to hear that for the first time in my life I’m exercising and walking regularly.  That’s a big change for the better.

My children, your grandchildren, are all doing well. Every one of them has grown up to be someone you would be extremely proud of. They include a professor at UCLA, a professor at USC, an attorney, a yoga teacher, and a writer.  The youngest, who you last knew when she was three years old, is now 32 and studying diligently for a Master’s degree in psychology.  Your oldest great-grandchild, is now a doctor.  She was the top student in her graduating class from medical school.  I think you’d be so pleased with the accomplishments of all of your progeny.  I know I am.

I want to thank you for the gift of teaching me good habits.  The most helpful one is to have a constructive state of mind. You almost always seemed happy and willing to be helpful. Clearly I was Influenced by your example. Like you, I try to find the best in any situation and I like to help others.

I increasingly realize the benefit of what I learned from you.  I enjoy shopping for groceries and I like to cook.  This is a good thing, because Daveen does not like to do either.  She prefers to clean up, which I have always hated.  As you said, Daveen and I are a match made in heaven.

There are still some areas in which I don’t comply with your rules. I still sometimes stay up too late, but no one, including me, is perfect.  (This is a rationalization that I learned about in Psychology 101 in college.)

Have I finally learned to put my laundry in a hamper instead of on the floor?  Absolutely.  Every day.  Do I keep my part of the bathroom counter organized?  Well, not exactly.  Like you, I hate to throw anything out.  I might need it someday (if I can find it).  Fortunately, the style today is to have two sinks in a master bathroom, so Daveen and I don’t overlap.

Thanks for all the time we spent together when I was young, talking while you prepared dinner.  Those were some of the best conversations of my life.  Thanks also for taking David and me on excursions — museums, the planetarium, and the zoo.  We enjoyed every outing and learned so much.

And thank you for loving me without condition or criticism.  That’s an environment I continue to try to recreate.  Your unconditional love permeated the life of everyone who knew you, and continues to fill mine.




Dear Dad

by Alan Fox 5 Comments
Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

As I begin my first New Year without you, I wanted to keep in touch, if only metaphorically, to share what’s going on in my life.  I’m pleased with my progress on several fronts, and, I think you’d be proud.

I always made it a point to visit you at least once or twice a week. Unfortunately, you died last May just after my second back operation.  At that time, it was difficult for me to even get out of bed, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to spend time with you during the last several weeks of your long and successful life.

Our family held a service at Mt. Sinai, where you were buried next to Mom on a beautiful blue-sky white-cloud May morning.  On July 14th (that would have been your 105th birthday), Daveen and I hosted a celebration of your life at our home with many of your friends, former students, and family present. I think you would have liked the speeches. You always had a lot to say and loved to talk.

The most important change I’ve made in my life is that I have gone from “couch potato” to “walking machine.”  That may be stating it too strongly, but for the past few months I’ve been walking more than three thousand steps every day. For me it is a monumental and long overdue lifestyle change.  While dining out recently we were told that dessert would take twenty minutes to prepare, so at my suggestion, Daveen and I took a very enjoyable walk. I added 487 steps to my total for the day.  (Yes, Dad, I still like to count things.  You and I were always good with numbers.)  I also remember that you played racquetball until you were eighty.  That’s pretty impressive.

You did very well in the stock market, while my record with stocks has always been dismal.  I recently sold the Valero shares you left to me, at close to the highest price of the past year. Without your sage counsel I’ll never know if that was the best financial move.

I want to thank you for your hospitality during the three months in 2018 when my life was in transition and I lived with you at your house.  I know you loved having me to yourself, at least for breakfast every day, and you were truly a gentleman in not showing any disappointment when I returned to my own home.

Dad, I appreciate you.  I learned so much from you about investment, work, and the importance of aiming for perfection in every task.  As you often said when I was a kid practicing the piano, “Every phrase matters. Every note counts.  Always pay attention and do your best.”

I know I was the best son to you I could be, and I’m glad you often bragged about me.  Your being proud of me was perhaps the best gift a father could ever give his son.  I’m proud of you too.





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