I took this picture a few weeks ago, when my mum came to visit. That’s her on the staircase, white handbag in stark relief against her black outfit and the muted colours of the landscape. I almost wanted to shout at her to take it off and hide it or throw it down to me, so it wouldn’t ruin the shot. But I was just killing time as I waited for her to reach the ground; I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to that much effort and possibly change the atmosphere.
When I first got to the bottom and looked around, everything seemed ugly. The bare tree branches, brown and muddy earth, sputtering rain, pale grey sky – we were in a park but it certainly didn’t feel fresh or restorative. Then I don’t know, watching my mum descend, umbrella overhead, recalled the photos I’d seen of people walking the same way; the moment gained some dignity, my mind allowed it a reluctant beauty. I could have a picture of my own like that, unscripted.
Looking at this photo I remember those simple feelings, but also the not-so-nice impatience I was struggling to keep in check. The only reason this picture is possible is because I bounded ahead of my mother on this and two other staircases, tired of walking in step with her and eager to feel a little like flying. My mum had mobility issues on this trip, so she walked slower than usual and pain caused her to need many breaks. This, combined with being unused to winter and having to wear borrowed boots, meant she was not the agile person I am used to spending time with. I found it difficult to maintain the pace that was comfortable for her, which led to more than one instance of frustration on my part. Then I would feel bad for being selfish and unsympathetic, and coach myself – with prayer – to slow down, and consider that she was more put out and emotionally affected by her mobility problems than I was.
Although at the time I was only trying to get a nice umbrella’d-walker shot, another memory for the album of my mum’s visit, this picture has come to be more than that. I can’t look at it without remembering the mental adjustment that happened at the bottom of the staircase, from dissatisfaction and impatience to calm and a bit of rainy-day wonder. It’s a stand-in for the other times I was frustrated with my mother too. Patience is not a strength of mine, and one downside of living on my own is that I don’t have regular outings with family or friends to practice waiting and compromise with loved ones. Mum’s visit was also a glimpse into what it might be like caring for her when she’s older; in addition to adjusting for her moving slowly, I was always observing places she could have a seat, modifying my expectations of our pacing so she could rest, and adapting our outings to minimise time she would be exposed to the wind and the cold. (Not to make her sound like an entirely sickly person, we had an amazing time together with marathon days of sightseeing, shopping and museum visits, just with lots of little stops sprinkled in between.)
Living on my own, it’s also easy to feel like I’m doing ok in the sin department – that I’m not as bad as some other people, or that I’ve improved leaps and bounds from the place I was in a few years ago. The ugly, self-centred feelings that came out during my mum’s visit chastened me for that complacency, and this picture is a reminder of that chastening. I need God’s grace a thousand times to help me to live the way he wants me to: for things I’m aware of, for things I have a tendency to forget, and for things I have yet to learn.