Friends, my great aunt Nadia passed on this morning. She was 94.
Whenever we lose someone we love, there’s always this mad dash to see how we can best remember them. All the times I ever spent with her, I can never think of any moment that I wasn’t loved, treasured, or valued. She was the living example of strength and kindness that we so rarely see these days.
Strength and kindness. You see, she simply had to be both. Her chosen field was photography — in a time when women didn’t support themselves — let alone build careers. Yet she pursued her dream with every bit of drive and tenacity that would be commonplace with any of today’s young women.
She was in good company. Her younger sister (my quirky, lovely, departed grandmother, who left us two years ago), and her own mother, who sailed into the great beyond long before I was born. She was not only a strong woman in a family of strong women, she was encouraged in her strength and drive by the one man who tied them all together: my great grandfather.
Alas, he also passed on long before I was born, but “Pappy” clearly loved all his girls, and he was certainly never threatened by such strong-willed, driven women in his life. And with my mom, he was surrounded by three generations of women who would all make a mark, each in their own way.
Aunt Nadia’s mark was one of images. She worked for major companies as a photographer, and eventually opened her own studio which she kept until the 1970s. She was always the “fly on the wall” when it came to documenting events. I’ll never forget how she would find a quiet corner to get the perfect angle. But she wouldn’t stay there long because she would see another spot that would give another vantage point. Then another. And another.
Standing still? Pshaw. That woman stood still for nothing. Because when she was documenting something — she had to capture it all. She was never more alive than when she was shooting. She had a smile painted on her at every moment when she was lining up a shot, and planning the next. Whether it was a rapid click with her mouth to get a baby to look up at her, or calling the “inlaws and the outlaws” together for a wedding group shot, she was ready to take it all on.
Most photographers are either skilled at great photojournalism or great portraits. Aunt Nadia was the real deal. She excelled at everything. She had her Nikon cameras and Nikkor lenses, and then there was her pride and joy, her beloved Hasselblad H1, the Mercedes of the camera world. It’s a feat of German engineering that provided the clearest, sharpest images possible.
That camera happened to be the exact same model that was used during the NASA Apollo missions, so everyone who owned the Hasselblad camera received first-generation prints of photos taken by the astronauts. It was a proud moment in my life when she gave some of those prints to me and my brother.
But none of that really matters. Not when I look at a woman whose life was one filled with passion, drive, and complete, utter peace all at once. It’s those quiet moments, those days where we remember the personal stories. Those are how we remember our loved ones.
It was a summer afternoon in Branson Missouri. I was a young man, deep into my first job as a movie theatre manager. I was becoming unsettled, and was looking into colleges to see where I could look to the future. Aunt Nadia and Uncle Oscar were visiting Branson that week, and had invited me to join them and check out the College of the Ozarks as a prospect.
I don’t remember much about the college, but Branson was its own set of memories. The time I spent with my great aunt and uncle were golden. Every single moment. But it was when we went to see a silly Russian comedian named Yakov Smirnov that the memories really kick in.
His show was one of light humor, and stories of his homeland, and his first experiences in this country. Fans of the TV show Night Court will remember his many guest appearances. He was zany. He was fun. And his show included a meal. It was, after all, a dinner theatre.
“We have a tradition in Russia,” he said with his obviously enhanced accent. “We love to tell jokes over the dinner table!” He then invited an audience member to join him on the stage and exchange jokes.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance. “Do you know any jokes?” he asked. Of course I know jokes. He smiled and extended his hand in invitation.
What followed was a fun little meal, if not a bit awkward. I hadn’t quite mastered the experience of being on stage at the time, but I eventually settled in as we shared a few quips back and forth. The audience was enamored with him. And I was on the flippin’ stage with Yakov Freaking Smirnov!
Then, after we finished our meal, he had a little surprise. “Another tradition in Russia is that we dance after dinner!” Oh hell. What had I gotten myself into? Immediately, he showed me how to do the Russian traditional dance, and surprisingly, I managed to match the movements.
Oh, the fun. I’ll never forget it. Aunt Nadia and Uncle Oscar were beaming from the audience, just clapping along while dancing in their seats.
At the show’s conclusion, she gave me one of her famous “bear hugs” and congratulated me. Then she grimaced and said in her soft, farm enriched Southern accent, “I’m kicking myself right now!”
She didn’t bring her camera.
Now, as she’s soaring into the stars, into the great eternal beyond — I can’t help but wonder. Does she have it now? I sincerely hope so. Just think of the sights she’ll capture; the images she could create.
I can only imagine.