Elizabeth JoAnn Bright
An anniversary and photo album of my mother
Today’s date, December 29, is the nineteenth anniversary of my mother’s death. Hard to believe it’s been that long. It touches me how often she’s in my thoughts, how often I replay singular memories.
Elizabeth was born on August 12, 1925, one of five children in an Irish Catholic family in Minneapolis.
She had an adventurous, unexpected life. The older I get, the more I wish I’d known her as an adult, “not-as-my-mom,” but as the woman the following photographs give a hint at.
Mama didn’t speak much about her life to me. I follow the breadcrumbs. I knew her psychically as if we were twins, but . . . I didn’t know her live(s) at all. I imagine other daughters may empathize.
My parents lived in DC briefly when they returned from India. Just long enough to deliver me! Elizabeth preferred her Indian clothes and had an hard time readjusting to the States. Most of the only few friends they had in town were Indian linguists.
THE FIRST DAUGHTER
August 12, 1925
Elizabeth was my grandmother's second child and her first daughter. Her parents were hopeful in these days, before the Depression. Her mother Agnes was healthy, my great grandmother still had her farm, and my grandfather Jack had a job with John Deere as a salesman. When I saw this baby book, it made me feel good that my mom was so warmly welcomed in the world.
Walhalla, North Dakota
World War OneYears
Agnes Williams, my maternal grandmother, in downtown Walhalla. My mom asked me when she died, if I would go back to North Dakota and sprinkle some of her ashes on the land where her grandmother owned a farm, before the banks did one of their famous foreclosures at the time. I'm sure I will not be able to find my way around from any of these photos!
My mother's mother, Agnes Williams, was the first piano player at the first Nickelodeon in Fargo, North Dakota.
She was a complete movie fanatic, and dreamed of going to California to be an actress or marry a movie star. I have a hilarious letter from one of her girlfriends, which she saved in a scrapbook. Her friend warned her that the men were completely scurrilous and not to be trusted. I think she makes a euphemism to the effect that they are all gay or kinky.
Anyway, Agnes asked all the stars for an autographed photo, and nearly all of them complied. This is one of my favorites, because Nazimova was such a diva, and her signature is as big as her legend.
WALHALLA TO CALIFORNIA
Siskyou Mountains, CA
My mother wrote on this photo: "Your great great Uncle Bill Halloran in the Siskyou Mountains, October 1920, on way from Walhalla to Calif. He died of heart disease when he was 22."
My mother's entire family came out to California, one by one, looking for work. In the 40s, the shipyards at Hunter's Point in San Francisco hired a lot of Irish American laborers, and that was the big push out from Minnesota for the last of them.
AREN'T WE WINSOME?
Phillips neighborhood, Minneapolis
My aunt Molly and Betty Jo as little ones.
My mom cut off her family for most of her adult life, and never spoke about it, or explained it. But in her later years, Molly chased her down, and they became closer than ever. She was devasted when Molly died a couple years before she did. Her heart got a lot worse, and she never recovered. She said Molly was the only one who knew what they had lived through. They lost their mother, and their father (by his absence) when they were very young, and their poverty was was one of those Depression stories that makes people shudder. When I asked my mom if she read "Angela's Ashes," she said, "I lived it, in this country."
Bud is the tallest in the back, standing next to Elizabeth (Betty Jo).
Molly is making the face on the left, next to Frannie, and baby Pid is in front. This is probably a year or two before their mother died of pneumonia.
BUD AND ME: AIN'T IT AWFUL?
My mother's first word, as a baby, was calling her brother's name: Bud. She told me she worshipped him when they were young. But when I was born, they were estranged— I don't know why— and I never met him. He had seven children.
In this picture, I can see how close they were, and it makes me so sad to think they had such a falling out. He was the only one besides her who really remembered their mother before she died.
The back of the photo reads: "Is this Lake Minnesota? No, it's Lake Shetek, where the Nelsons went every summer"
I've always been intrigued with this photo. I don't know anything about it, and my mom only told me it was taken on a crazy day trip she went with friends, where they all ended up rolling down a hill. My mom seemed to have the most non-stop party life when she was in high school and undergraduate school. When she came out to California, it wasn't the same.
From left to right: Frannie, Betty Jo, Pid, and Molly
WATCH THIS WOMAN
I'm also surprised to see any photo of my father Bill cleanshaven. This is a very funny photo, but it's nice to have one that's not so perfectly posed. Plus, they're both so beautiful.
Bill in uniform, Elizabeth in the middle, and Herb Benario, who
was in the same unit with my dad in Germany. He later became a professor of Latin
at the University of Georgia. They visited Rome on one of their army leaves to see the sights. All my father’s friends in college linguistics and poetry, and in the army, were gay, like Herb. He would later tell me about gay life through their eyes during this period of intense secrecy, and I tried to record every word.
This was one of my favorite photos of my mom. When I grew up thinking of Europe, this is how I imagined walking around.
LIBBY AND LION
My dad called my mother Libby. This is a petting zoo that surely doesn't exist anymore, at what was called the Rasthaus, near Kassel.
When I showed my baby daughter Aretha this picture, she reacted the same way I did when I was a kid: Green with jealousy that I had never been this familiar with a lioness.
FRANNIE AND BETTY JO IN COLOGNE
My mother's younger sister Frannie came over to Germany to visit my mother while my dad was stationed by the Army in Kassel. My mom was so lonely there, that it must have meant a great deal to her to have Frannie travel to see her.
My aunt died very young, and I miss her. She was very feminine and playful, and I remember being in awe when she would paint my fingernails pink. She had three boys, and said that I was such a treat, her darling niece. My first lessons in “femme” came from Frannie.
BANGALORE LINGUISTICS CONFERENCE
Chidambaram, Madras State
My father in bow tie, and my mom are on the left, in the foreground. They are seated with linguists Gordon Fairbanks, Ron Goodison, and Ron Asher.
DR. LIVINGSTON AND LITTLE NELL
Lal Bagh, Bangalore
This is priceless, of course. The Westerners in India. I never saw my mom in pigtails again. Photo taken by Satyanarayana Rao.
1956– The back of the photo reads, "With Cariapa's Ayah"
My partner Jon drew a large illustration of my mother in one of her favorite sari's, that he gave her when she lived in Hibbing. She loved it so much.
SUSIE IN ELIZABETH'S SARI
In her saris, with my hair pulled back, I think I could be mistaken for my mom when she was young. But I never had a 17" waist.
I loved it when my mom would dress up to go to San Francisco. But this was one of the last years she wore a suit.
GOING TO BALLET CLASS
McGee Street. My first memories are here, I don't remember the years before when my parents were married. I was four. I loved my ballet class and my mom was so proud of me. This is the first class I can remember taking of anything.
STEPS IN PLEASANTON
My mom started teaching German and English at Amador Valley High school when we lived here. I was in kindergarten and got my first stage role as Goldilocks. I remember JFK being shot and how my mom was inconsolable. That was the first political event I was aware of.
Sierra Madre, CA
I took this photo of my mom with our Brownie camera. She duplicated it dozens of times to use in job applications. She had the hardest time finding a library job; it drove her crazy. She came home from subsitute teaching in Pasadena high schools one day, and said, "That's it. Some girl took her bra off in class today and ran around the room screaming at the top of her lungs." She didn't go back the next day.
UNCLE SWITHIN AND ELIZABETH
Sierra Madre, CA
The nicest place we ever lived was an annexed apartment of a grand old home on Alegria Ave., owned by the Koyamatsu's. One time Mr. Koyamatus lowered our rent from $80 to $75 a month! They were so fond of my mother, and this was the year she started library grad school.
This was our porch. There was a huge yard with avacado, orange, lemon, persimmon, tangerine and macademia nut trees. I climbed on all of them. This was our baby kitten, who we named after the character Uncle Swithin on The Forsythe Saga, which was airing on public television at the time. We were addicted to it.
I was in junior high when we moved to Canada for my mom's first professional library job. It was 40 below zero for a solid month. I was in shock.
At these very same Parliament buildings, my new friends and I would go after school and burn American flags, protesting the test bombs at Amchitka Island and the Vietnam war. They beat me up the first week for being a Yankee but after that, my Canadian friends were the best friends I ever had as a kid.
My aunt Molly had the most beautiful house in the north hills of Berkeley. She used a dumbwaiter device to cable groceries up the hill from the car to the front door, it was on such a steep cliff.
This is my mom, after she returned to California from Canada and asked my dad to raise me during my high school years. She loved this little dog Percy, who belonged to Mary Stone, the woman my Aunt Molly lived with for many years.
TALLER THAN MY MOM
Paso Robles, CA
When looked at this photo I realized for the first time that I was taller than my mom. This photo was taken by Mary in Paso Robles, one of her few friends, who she respected so much. Mary was one of the intellectual West Coast bohemians, really beautiful with long white hair. You sort of imagined her being up in Big Sur with Edward Weston and Henry Miller.
Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh
My mom rarely took a vacation, and when she did, it was always a surprise. She would tell me about it when she came back. I have always wondered what she did on this trip she took to Ireland, Scotland and England. She looks so happy, and I don't often see her smile so easily. She told me she asked a tourist to snap her picture.
I GREW UP IN THIS CAR
May 12, 1978--
When my mom decided to move back to Minnesota from California, she drove over the Rockies in January in our 1963 VW. We moved more than a dozen times in my childhood, and so this car was like my "hometown." It was pitaschio green, and we could fit all our belongings in it.
Mom said she wanted to move back to Minnesota to be close to her grandmother's grave. When she moved to the Cities, she prepared a headstone for her own mother's grave, that had remained unmarked since she died in 1937.
Santa Cruz, CA
Kresge College, U.C. Santa Cruz. I got my BA in Community Studies and my mom came out for the ceremony. She was so nonplussed that I sat with what must have been a group of about 12 dykes, with haircuts that make ours seem like flowing locks. She was incredibly proud of my college career; it was such a point of honor to her. But I was never half the student she was!
BETTY JO, SUSIE, & MOLLY
Yuba River, CA
My mom and I went up to see my Aunt Molly's hunting lodge in Downieville on the Yuba River. We couldn't believe that she had finally left Berkeley for the Gold Country. My aunt Molly has had so many outrageous enterprises. She opened the first gay bar in Albany in the 1960s. She took my cousin Ty, for his birthday, to see the premiere of Space Odyssey 2001, and then to hear Janis Joplin sing at the Fillmore. She once sent me a tape of Huey Newton giving a hellfire speech at U.C. Berkeley.
ZUNI CAFE MOTHER'S DAY
When I lived in San Francisco, I would go to the Zuni Cafe on Market Street every Mother's Day. When Aretha was four, my mom came to visit and Jon and I took her to the brunch as well. My mother would never dress up "girly" like Aretha does, but she lived vicariously through her style.
ELIZABETH AND KIM ANNO
This is the kitchen and home I shared with Honey Lee Cottrell for many years in the 1980s. My friend Kim Anno is visiting here with Elizabeth, one of my only friends who has met my mom. My mom loved her so much. Kim is a painter, and when my mom moved to the nursing home, she put Kim's paintings all over her room.
IRON RANGE INTERPRETIVE CENTER
Hibbing and Chisholm, MN
This is my mother's office at what is now called Iron World. She loved creating a library there more than any other job she ever had. The Iron Range is home to immigrants from a hundred countries, about 70 languages, the home of the co-op movement, and the birthplace of the American Communist Party, not to mention Bob Dylan. It was a mining town (still is, but not much left) with a one of the most protracted, decades-long labor-management-struggle-to-the-death you have ever heard of. A real gold mine for a librarian!
A photocopy of her fingertips turning the page. The last photograph she mailed me. I wish I had sent the exact same pose back of myself at the copier with a book. I have, in my dreams.