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Three generations go home. Part Two: HOME

I grew up about 12 miles east of London in a small-ish town called Rainham. It’s basically a London suburb at this point, situated just off the Thames, but it has a long history going back thousands of years. There is a Neolithic excavation site in Rainham, an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, and the local church is a Grade I listed building, erected around 1170 AD, that stands as it was built.  Although the history is long and deep, it’s not what you would call a picturesque town. It looks pretty ordinary and isn’t exactly the hub of any major activity. But, it’s home.

After we rocked London (click here to see that blog post) this was our next stop. I jumped in a rental car and drove straight to the last house my parents owned before they moved to the U.S. to be with me. My maternal grandparents – my Nan and Grandad – lived next door to us (to the left of the photo below) and even before we moved next to them when I was 13, this was the street I would come home to after school, waiting for my mum to arrive home from work. Mum didn’t drive back then and she used to take a train and a bus back home. From the front wall of my grandparents’ property, I could see the end of the street where the buses passed by. I knew approximately what time her 87 bus would come by and would stand at the front gates with my eyes glued to the end of the road, waiting for that double-decker red. Then, at the first sign of her rounding the corner onto our street, i would take off in a full-out run to throw myself into her arms. I still remember the excitement of how it felt to see her head turn that corner and the feeling of happiness and safety once her arms were around me. I remember her smell, that she was always lugging heavy bags of large ledgers, and that she would often bring me home a McDonald’s hamburger, my grandad some kind of meat pie that he would devour at one sitting. Then we would sit in my grandparents’ front living room and talk about our day while we would wait for my dad to arrive in his car to pick us up and take us home. We never went straight home, there was always a cup of tea on the boil first. Our dad was by every definition a car enthusiast and loved taking us to the BMW meetup to show us the best cars and his friends who owned those cars and drove them on racing events. My love for cars and driving comes entirely from my dad.

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My parents sold this house to come out and live down the street from me in the U.S., eight years ago. We had so many happy memories there that it’s hard to stand in front of it and not be able to go inside. It’s even more difficult coming home, as I did for 15 of my 20 years in the U.S., and not, this time, having a “home” to stay in. Residing in a hotel in your home country seems just wrong. And I never realized, until after it happened that it was gone, how much having that home-base, at home, really mattered. We stood in front of this house with heavy but thankful hearts, wishing we could see how the garage conversion had been done and if the beautiful kitchen we had spent so much time in, was still well-cared for.

The hotel we stayed in was actually in Romford, a large town not far away that is the major retail hub of the area. Mum and I used to visit religiously, every Saturday, to walk around the stores, the market, have copious cups of coffee, and a light lunch. When I was really little, my dad used to come with us and we would go early enough to have breakfast out. When we did, we would often go to a small cafe (said “caff”) in the shopping center called Gingham Kitchen. In the 70s and 80s it was resplendent with orange and brown checkered furnishings; the sign up-front is still original and hints at that earlier style. I honestly didn’t expect to turn the corner and find it still there after all this time but there it is, still standing, still busy with it’s odd mix of hunched-over pensioners looking for a cheap, satisfying lunch, and locals who know that the toasted sandwiches and lasagne beat out any of the fancy spots that have popped up around town.

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In case you’re wondering, I had a toasted sausage sandwich and my mum and daughter had toasted cheese sandwiches. Sausage dishes is what I like most of all. I usually buy sausage from our local store. As far as I know they order produce from the leading DCW Casing. Basically it’s like a grilled cheese but without the grilled part; less greasy in general. It tasted exactly the same as it did 20+ years ago. I love that about home, the little things that don’t change.

Like Rainham, Romford isn’t exactly a picture-perfect postcard town. But to me it’s home. Below you can see one of the major thoroughfares and the hotel we stayed in to the left.

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Romford is a market town and Fridays and Saturdays for most of its life have been bustling with the energy of the market area. When I grew up this place was a hive of activity, a place where the latest fashions would hang in a stall beside fresh produce being sold by loud-mouthed stall vendors who enticed you over by calling out things like “Come on, darlin’, come get yur bananas, nice and fresh, just a pound a bunch!”, and where East End traditions like jellied eels were still popular. At Christmas time the market stalls would blast the latest popular Christmas songs and the cauliflower would sit beside gaudy tinsel and foil decorations.

I don’t know what happened to Romford market in the last decade, but the buzz has gone. It was half empty and a sad sight. But we eeked out what we could of those old memories.

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On our first night in the area, we drove back to the home I grew up in, about 2 miles east of the last house my parents owned. I lived there from age 10 months to 13 years and so this is really my childhood home. The street is really narrow and tiny and the houses are huddled together in terraces, with cars parked in what used to be front gardens to try and free-up some room on the street. I had to stop the car in the middle of the street and left it running while we jumped out to take a quick photo in front of our old house.

As we did so, an old man came out of the house next door and looked at us strangely. “Sorry,” I said, in case he thought we were up to something fishy “we used to live here and just wanted to take a quick photo.” At that moment the man lifted his head and looked at us critically. “Pauline?” he asked, referring to my mum who was about to jump back in the passenger seat. Mum and I suddenly looked properly at the old man and realized all at once that this was Jack, the same man we had lived next to for almost a decade, almost 30 years ago. He still lived there! Before we knew it, he was calling out his wife to greet us and we were taking pictures on his front doorstep. There was just something incredibly touching about my own daughter standing with the man who had known me so well at her age. And, just like finding Gingham Kitchen still in the same place, serving the same food, something so comforting about finding Jack and his wife right where we left him.

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Then, the woman who now owns our old home, popped her head out of her door and ended up talking to us. She told us about how much she loved the back garden I have so many amazing memories of, how much she loves living there. I wish she would have invited us inside but the invitation never came and I didn’t have the guts to ask for one.

Next stop was my infant and junior school (equivalent to elementary and middle schools in the U.S.) It too has a long history: the building that is now a nursery school, dates back to the 1700s and was a classroom I was once a student in.

(Related: Get spaces for classroom rental singapore at affordable prices and make the most out of a cross cultural learning experience)

Home Rainham Essex England photographer

Home Rainham Essex England photographer

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Things don’t look much different than they did when I was a kid. A few more boarded-up shop fronts, but that’s about it. Otherwise home remains almost exactly how it appears in my fond memories. It makes my chest ache to think about all that and it was a dream come true to show my daughter where and how I grew up, especially since those places and spaces are so different to the ones she calls home. What is this desire to share our own roots with our kids? I don’t know but it’s powerful and primal.

Final stop before we retired our first day was the Fish & Chip shop we loved, The New Cherries. Not only is it the best chippy in the area but it’s also a rocking Chinese restaurant. And yes, it’s still there and hasn’t changed a bit. Since it’s take-away only, we bought paper plates and plastic knives and forks and then ordered all our favorite things. Cod and chips and a saveloy for my daughter (that I may or may not have picked at) and then deep-fried shredded beef in chili sauce, chicken chow mein, special fried rice, and curry sauce, for me and mum. It was a certifiable food-gasm and we sat on the bed of our hotel room and groaned and moaned with pleasure. The whole room stank by the time we were done. Nomnom.

The Chinese plate

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We ate many delicious meals in many beautiful places in our two weeks in England but this was hands-down the best meal we had the entire time we were there. It’s definitely a story that will live on in many re-tellings for all of us.

Backing-up one step, we also got talking to this guy behind the counter at the Fish shop. Turns out he’s the son of the owner who has owned that restaurant for 40 years, basically all my life. He was very impressed that we came all the way from America to seek-out his family’s food and even offered to bulk-ship us some saveloys back to the U.S.

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I know they say home is not a place, it’s a feeling but… I kind of disagree with that in many ways. Maybe it’s something you can’t latch onto until you’ve lived for an extended time in a place that is very different from where you grew up. And maybe I am indeed confusing the feelings I have about this place with the memories I still hold so close to my heart, but I do know that this place is and always will be home in all the senses of the word. If anything, 20 years gone has only intensified the feeling.

i wish I had lingered longer and taken more photos. Next time I will be more leisurely in my exploration. Looking at what I got now, it feels lacking, like so many things I wanted to capture thoughtfully, are missing.

Next up: exploring grand homes and castles and constantly marveling at the presence of green, green grass. 

1 Comment

  1. kelly polizzi

    what i wouldnt give to taste curry sauce again!!

    Reply

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Westminster Woods adventures

My daughter goes to a pretty awesome school where the philosophy is “learning by doing.” And in this spirit, every year, each grade from Kindergarten up, goes on an overnight field trip. For the Kinders it’s just one night, then in 1st and 2nd grade you go for two nights, and so on and so forth, adding days and casting the net further afield. The kids get to experience a little independence away from home, growing their self-confidence, testing friendships, and getting their hands dirty in the big wide world; exploring habitats, plants, and animals that they’ve been studying in class.

This year’s field trip was to Westminster Woods, a camp out by the Russian River and the wild Sonoma Coast. Since I volunteer in the classroom regularly and know these kids well, lucky me, I got to drive my daughter and two girls from her class, then chaperone them for the entire trip. Myself and one other mom also got to be cabin parents to seven 6-7 year old girls, which I can tell you was an experience in futility all its own: I liken it to trying to fill a bucket with a gaping hole in the bottom. Gotta love those girls but, oyy, *I* was tired of hearing my own voice by day 3.

The trip was not without its frustrations. Beyond the expected challenges of corralling multiple, high-spirited and excited children, finding lost hair brushes, panties, tooth-brushes, and the like, I wasn’t incredibly impressed with our guide this year and my own daughter decided that having her mother around wasn’t enough security to stop a couple of meltdowns of epic proportions. The latter I am used to managing alone, not when I’m trying to play mom to a handful of other girls who don’t have a parent around. To say I felt “bested” at times, would be an understatement.

But just like life, even though experiences don’t end up living up to the high expectations you place on them, it doesn’t mean there weren’t memories made and joy shared.

We got to go tide-pooling at Shell Beach then picnic up on the bluff with the most amazing view of the coastline. We did a night hike one night and saw a deer not 30 feet from us stop and stare back with us in that shocked moment of indecision that they have before they bolt. The second night we sang silly songs in front of an (admittedly paltry) camp fire (see, expectations… there was a fire, I could barely see it, let alone feel any heat from it, but it was there.)

I, obviously, took a lot of pictures (huge shock) and a lot of them are of other children on the trip that are shared internally with our class. In respecting that not everyone wants their child’s picture on big wide web, I’m only sharing photos of my own girl for the most part here.

Watching kids explore, learn, and be in wonder, is my favorite reason to pull out a camera. In that, alone, I had a blast.

 

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A class photo above Shell Beach, taken by one of our tour guides. Yep, I made it into one this year!

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Introducing: The Butterfly Project

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

The Butterfly Project Beloved Photo Session Memories by Michelle Photography

You don’t get to the ripe old age of 41 without having met some pretty incredible people. In my 41 trips around the sun, I’ve been fortunate to have met many and. by virtue of being a woman myself, many of them women. What I’ve learned and seen and experienced, especially by standing beside those friends who have struggled with fear, grief, loss, abuse, and health issues, is that a woman’s beauty shines brightest through her tears. All of us carry with us hurts and scars that shape and transform us, that we fight to transcend, forgive, and live beyond. Some of us have scrapes and others deep wounds that cut us to the core; it’s not the depth of the injury that dictates the transformation.

Like a butterfly emerging from the broken shell of the cocoon, the moment of joyful, beautiful, colorful flight into the sunlight comes after days of darkness, a seeming brokenness, an end.

It’s this moment, this flying toward the light with sunshine blinding you, that I have been so transfixed by lately. There is wholeness to those people who have moved beyond their experience and into a new space for themselves, a transference of energy that, if you pay attention, has a physicality to it. The leaning in, the reaching out, the steady and loving gaze that says “it’s ok, I’ve been there, me too.”

And through that I have envisioned photographing women in what I feel is a completely different way from much of what we see and consume in daily media: women as whole, complete, messy, people; courageous, sexy, strong, vulnerable, defiant, and imperfect.

When my friend, Mala, and I tossed around some ideas about photographing her post-divorce, I felt that there were two ideas slowly drawing together like magnets but I didn’t exactly know what it would look like when the two ends met. Mala wanted to do a photo session around re-purposing and re-claiming her wedding sari, a defiant and powerful gesture both culturally and personally. We started there and let the rest fall into place.

Mala has her own story and her own, beautiful way of telling it. You can read more from her directly here. I see her as fun, artistic, passionate, flamboyant, bold, adventurous, emotional, strong, powerful and, you’ve probably guessed by now, brave, defiant, and sometimes controversial (you can see why we’re friends.) I also know that she has a lot of pain and hurt that she continues to deal with. So I literally had tears streaming down my face when I looked at these pictures and felt that I had captured all of that in our Saturday afternoon together.

I feel these are some of the most honest photos I have ever taken. And, I hope (KNOW), this is just the beginning. (See more below the slideshow for more on that.)

 

 

I am offering free sitting fees for other women who want this experience and these images to celebrate their beauty with, inside and out. They don’t have to look like this. In fact, I have no idea what YOUR photos will look like. They’ll look like how I experience you and that’s all that I can say. If you’re the quiet, thoughtful type, for sure I would never photograph you this way. I envision these sessions as a conversation, much as this was for me and Mala. We talked as much as we shot. We played with light, locations, poses, ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (There may also have been wine involved.) That’s all I can say and can promise: it will be a fun exploration. Please get in touch with me if you want to chat about why a session like this interests you and what that might look like.

3 Comments

  1. Jill De Marce

    Loved it. You can really get the feeling from the picture and that is what good photographers do. Way to go!

    Reply
  2. Brooke Collier

    Oh my! Yeah, this is powerful! ALL the myriad of emotions coexisting within one whole and complex woman. Thanks to Mala for her courage and vulnerability, and to you Michele for the sensitivity and skill with which you approached the subject!

    Reply
  3. Mama T

    THIS is what you are meant to be doing, my dear! Without a doubt this simply shouts beauty and strength and story of a life, messy, sexy, strong, beautiful.

    Reply

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