A Century of Hats and Spirit

Irma Gershkowitz in a pussy hat. Photo by Leann Shamash.

“Remember the days long gone by. Ponder the years of each generation. Ask your parent and let her tell you, and your grandparent, who will explain it.” – Deuteronomy 32:7

What do we see when we see the elderly? As we breeze by we may observe stooped shoulders, crooked backs, gnarled hands, uncertain gaits, wrinkled skin.

But beneath these superficial indicators of age are people. Perhaps the elderly woman you passed was once a homemaker, or a doctor, or a secretary, or a clerk. Perhaps she was a traveler, or a soldier, or a nurse. She played bridge, or canasta, or Mahjong. She volunteered with Hadassah, or at the temple.

What do we see when we see women who once walked with a confident stride now shuffling, grasping their walkers as their balance leaves them? Do we see our mothers as accumulations of books read, tears wiped, dishes cooked, jobs well done, families held together, countries traveled, wars fought, and peace kept? Or do we miss this when we glance around them instead of at them?

My mother, Irma Gershkowitz, has been a homemaker, a shopper, a traveler, a player of Mahjong, a member of Hadassah, a community member, and a person who tried hard to make sponge cakes on Passover with varied success. She had a rocky but passionate marriage with my father. She deeply loved her sister until the day that she died. My mother still savors white wine, the Boston Red Sox, and Cape Cod. In her day, she was a fierce shopper at Boston’s Filene’s Basement. She is a mean Scrabble player and avid reader. She and my father wowed crowds at family parties with their dance skills. Irma G., like all of us, has her faults and her virtues, her likes and dislikes. In her eyes, face, and hands I see the accumulation of these experiences. But I had never taken the time to really see her as a person.

This fall, I embarked upon a shared project with my mother, who is 95 years old. I photographed her in a century’s worth of hats as she approached nearly a century of life. To say that Irma G. was an animated subject would be an understatement. When she donned a hat, her anxiety disappeared and she beamed. In front of the lens, her moodiness dissipated like heavy fog. She laughed, she posed, she flirted and teased. At times her eyes closed as though she was elsewhere and she raised her hand upwards as though grasping for something unknown. The project transported her back in time physically and perhaps spiritually, as well.

My mother delighted in preparing for the photo shoots and in concocting creative poses. Whether she was wearing a beret, or a straw hat, or a kerchief, she reveled in seeing herself in the photos and noted how lovely she looked. She especially loved sharing those photos with others; these photos were a gift that validated both her past and her current identity. Most of all, the project gave her the gift of time with her daughter.

I have learned much from this project, but I admit that the lasting lessons involve the process more than the actual photos. I was thrilled that the photo project gave Irma G. so much joy and am grateful that this project fell into my lap. Most of all though, I feel that I gained the gift of sight. After this project I began to see my mother differently. Through the photos I got a glimpse into her personhood, her long and rich history reaching backwards through the past century.

Since my mother and I completed the hat project, I have begun visiting other senior homes and centers. I sit with residents, hear their stories, and see evidence of who they are now through their most precious possessions: the photographs of their children and grandchildren. I photograph them. Their wrinkles become the roadmarks of their past, their poor balance reminds me of the thousands of steps they have taken to get to this point, their veiny hands indicate the hard work they have done in their lives. I hope to show them how beautiful they are, and how powerful their stories are in our shared history.

In doing this project, I have been reminded of the story of Moses, who in his wanderings came upon a burning bush. Who knows how long that bush was burning, and who knows how many others passed by those glowing branches, but did not bother to stop. It was because Moses paused long enough to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, that the gifts of that bush were revealed to him. Our lives are increasingly fast-paced, and in a society that values action and productivity, we center the experiences of youth and middle age. I would entreat you not to overlook the wisdom and perspectives of the elderly.

When you see an elderly person, stop and chat. Find out who she is. What is the path that she has tread to get to this moment? What do you have in common? Take the time to notice, to see, to talk and to share. Your reward will be great.

“Whoever greets the old… it is as if he greets the Divine Presence.” – Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 27

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So moving and true! I feel grateful and inspired after reading the history and photo-shoot of your parents....I do hope to become more attentive and careful in approaching and loving elderly people in my environment!

Leann, I have known your mom and your family for over half a century. She took what life gave her with a smile on her face. And for a daughter to give her a new role in her late life is such a Mitzvah. And as so often happens the giver gets so much joy from the receiver.

What a great project! Having recently lost my mom I can even more appreciate the beauty of old age.
Thanks Leann for the beautiful pictures and story.

where can we see the rest of the photos? beautiful in every way. thank you!

In reply to by Pearl Shifer

Hi Pearl,

You can see the rest of the photos, here: https://photographyatelier.org/artist/leann-shamash/.

Beautifully written and meaningful. As a young woman, I used to get impatient climbing the subway stairs behind an older woman. Then I would think of my older aunt whom I loved and realized that this older woman might be her, so I slowed down and honored her. Now I am that older woman myself.

Absolutely! Such a beautifully written post. How lovely, to look at age through the hats our mothers have worn over the decades of their lives. Happy Mother's Day!

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How to cite this page

Shamash, Leann. "A Century of Hats and Spirit." 9 May 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/century-hats-and-spirit>.