She Holds A Light
This piece is by Katt Janson Merilo and first appeared in She Shoots Film, Issue 2, MOTHER.
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She Holds a Light
Words by Katt Janson Merilo
Photography by Linda (Norling) Janson
“This is not how the picture looked,” my mom says as she gestures over the small, worn print held between her fingers. “We were in this horrible creek that was outside of our hooch: the creek was a couple drops of water… But I wanted to do a candle float because that’s what I did on the 4th of July in Michigan.”
What my mom means to say is that the background of the print has been photographically burned to edit some of the environmental ugliness of the surroundings down to pure blackness. She talks as if the photo creates a white lie because of the change, but this is perhaps the more accurate way to represent the setting.
Out of the blackness rises a solitary woman, illuminated by a candle in her hands.
She gazes at it as if it were some intricate and delicate task requiring all of her focus. She’s wearing nurses’ scrubs. Her scrubs and cap are sprinkled with droplets from some kind of light spray; it could be water or blood. Her posture makes it look as if she were interrupted in the middle of a stitch on some shrapnel-torn limb and has had her needle and thread swapped out with the candle. Still, she doesn’t seem shocked by the change. She looks, instead, remarkably calm. “She was on duty; that’s why she’s in her OR [Operating Room] stuff, but she came over for the float.” Mom points at a barely visible elbow near the left corner. “And that’s actually TT right there, that elbow.”
As hard as I try to keep my focus on the mental journey that my mom is taking when she looks at this photo, I’m partially distracted by the trip my own memories take when I see it. I’m still physically sitting next to her, but I’m also remembering the living room in my childhood home in Houston where the photo hung for as long as I can remember. Mostly though, I’m remembering what it was like to sit on my dad’s shoulders at the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993; an American flag rippling in my hands while swarms of people passed by us wearing that photo. The photo was on their t-shirts, their hats, their bags. To our left, the dark, stretching gash of blackness that my mom called “The Wall” and others called the Vietnam Memorial rose and tore through the scenery like a wound. But in front of us, two women towered over a fallen soldier, all frozen forever in a moment between life and death. Mom appears to have traveled with me to this same place because she is now saying, “they put that saying on… something about ‘she lights the way’.”
The saying was: She holds a light so that we may find our way back with her small ray!
Those words were also on all the t-shirts and hats and bags and prints for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Dedication and it’s almost odd to see the image alone without it. “I think one of the people that was working with the Memorial had a son who died in Vietnam, maybe in surgery, and so she really liked that thought.” The thought of the OR nurse - illuminating the way either back to life or into whatever happens beyond with compassion and calm determination - resonated with that Memorial organiser, and the thousands of others who bought the image.
The woman in the photo is named Elaine, and the photographer was my mom.
At the age of 22, Mom started a year long stay on the American military base of Cu Chi in Vietnam, serving as an OR nurse from April 1969 to May 1970. I spent most of my life not knowing much of anything about this huge experience in my mom’s past, save for some details. I knew Mom would never join us to watch a fireworks show, and theorised that her undying love for the TV show M.A.S.H. had something to do with Vietnam. I knew that the first SLR camera I ever owned, a Canon Pellix, was one she bought at the base store, and that a photo of her best friend from that time hung in our living room. For nearly 30 years, that’s all I knew about Vietnam.
A few years ago I got a job scanning film and Mom sent me a handful of slides to scan, all of Vietnam. I was elated. She mentioned a print of her friend TT: the detached elbow from the candle photo and a pilot for the Hornets 116th helicopter fleet. She asked if I could scan it so she could send it to him if she ever found him again. This was my chance, and I offered to scan and archive all of her negatives for her. But she told me that she had none. She’d thrown them all away before leaving Vietnam.
The thought of throwing away negatives is almost physically painful to me. I can’t imagine any scenario in which I would willingly throw away an entire year’s worth of negatives, except if the negatives represented something too painful to remember. And so I assumed that this was true for my mom and throwing her negatives out was her way of throwing away the whole experience. But my curiosity persisted, and I finally got up the courage to ask her to show me more and tell me more about what remained of her Vietnam photos. I was expecting a fast “no”, so I was shocked when she responded, “Yes, I’d like that, as taking photographs was one of the good parts about being there.”
And now Mom and I are sitting together in a California house my sister has rented while the whole family spends a rare weekend together for my cousin’s wedding. My young nephews and niece emit the boisterous sounds of children playing in the pool and my brother and sister occasionally stop and listen in as we bend over and quietly discuss relics from a war almost a lifetime ago. The mix in tone is nearly comedic, but the heat from the California sun does plenty to suggest a Vietnamese climate.
Mom picks up a picture of a bright and stark looking room with metallic, swooping walls and four figures, one of whom lies on a bed wrapped from head to toe in gauze and bandages. Two of the other figures bend over him, concentrating on their task. Lights and bottles of some kind of serum tower over the scene. “The OR,” she says in introduction. I’d wondered about this room for as long as I knew it existed and now here it is – I’m looking into it. And it’s so much easier to ask “tell me about this photo” than “tell me about your war experience.”
She points to an exhausted, masked figure looking into the lens: a male nurse. “That’s Taddy. He actually got sent to Tay Ninh.” There is a significant pause, and I ask what Tay Ninh was. “Tay Ninh was about 30 miles from Cu Chi. Cu Chi was considered to be a very, very busy and rough area – we had one of the busiest ORs in Vietnam. But Tay Ninh was so close to the action that they were underground. They only wanted male nurses. Taddy got transferred there.” We both stare at the photograph for a moment, her remembering and me wondering what on earth the OR on the Rougher Side of Vietnam would’ve been like.
She holds up a slide showing a landed helicopter, figures carrying a man between them fleeing from its doorless sides like ants from an oncoming boot. Mom explains that the helicopters had no doors so that it would be easier to load and unload the injured. The helicopters are omnipresent in our talk and varied in their implications, bringing soldiers who may soon be bodies but also providing the potential for adventure and escape. Like being held back from Tay Ninh, being a female nurse provided several more restrictions...and the means to turn those into advantages. “We weren’t supposed to leave the base,” Mom explains. “If a nurse got killed, think of what it would look like in the papers. But I could just go up to a helicopter and say ‘Can I catch a ride?’ and hear, ‘Oh sure, no problem!’” At this, my mom laughs. She has a coy, almost mischievous look in her eye. “I never felt so special as a female before in my life, or since.”
She took many unapproved trips this way: charming her way onto helicopters without doors, squeezed in beside the gunner on a ride she absolutely was not supposed to be taking to places she absolutely was not supposed to be going. She begins to tell me about the orphanages she frequently visited, where none of the babies cried, but then stops suddenly. My young niece has just run up to us to give Mom a hug. Mom pauses and hugs her granddaughter, then waits for her to go back to the pool with my nephews. After hearing the splash back into the pool, Mom tells me about the infants in the orphanage who died not out of lack of food or cleanliness but because for the first three months of their lives, no one held them. I get an uninvited flash of memory back to when I worked for a summer at the daycare where my mom taught. I remember her holding a fussy baby in the nursery, surrounded by all the bustle and energy you’d expect from a crib room. I then picture her standing alone in an orphanage, holding as many silent infants in turn for as long as she can before her chopper leaves, bringing and taking with her a too-brief light of affection and compassion into a hopeless place.
On her more adventurous trips, she’d take pictures. During those times, she was just like any other tourist. And then she’d return to base, where she was required to be, to keep herself “safe”. Safe, in a place where enemies tunneled under and onto base without anyone knowing. Safe where her pieces of protection against the weekly experience of incoming fire were a 1” foam mattress pad and a helmet. Safe in a place that sent her to perform relief work in a village where the Viet Cong threw bombs into Sunday Mass and posted a new villager’s head on a spike each week.
I ask my mom if that’s why she came back without any negatives: to leave the images behind. “It was a packing thing,” she answers simply. “We had two suitcases for a year’s worth of stuff.” As a film photographer interested in family history, the lack of negatives is disappointing, but I understand why it was possible for her to walk away from them. It’s clear now that the process of photography made parts of my mom’s time in Vietnam (and now talking about Vietnam) a little bit easier, and that relief alone was enough.
It was her best friend Elaine who charmed their way into the darkroom. They would hide away there when not on duty, developing photos from their unapproved adventures. For one roll or print at a time they’d escape into the dark, burning out the sounds of incoming helicopters and chaos for a short but necessary time.
And after the chaos was gone, the pictures were no longer needed for Mom – they had already served their purpose in giving her those vital moments of distraction during an impossible situation.
Unfortunately, I lost her camera in a burglary, but I still use the lens she bought with it. Sometimes when I look through that lens, I find myself wondering what Mom would’ve seen through it almost fifty years ago. Maybe it was a packed, yet silent orphanage wing in Saigon. Or a patient rolling in with the doctor’s hand in his chest, the manual pumping hopefully helping him last long enough for her to get the blood bags hooked up. Maybe it would’ve been an oxen cart driver in Tay Ninh, where she did in fact visit (and to think she got nervous on my first drives into downtown Houston alone). I’m in awe of the things my mom did, saw and took in stride at the genesis of her adult life, and can’t imagine myself doing the same.
When I was younger, I used to scoff at the statements that I look just like my mother, or any other equivalences brought to my attention. When she suggested I be a teacher, I turned a deaf ear, knowing that she was a teacher and wanting to make some way for myself that couldn’t be compared. But now I fully embrace comparisons to my mother, and revel in them. I can’t think of a stronger or more selfless person to be compared to. She was right that I’d be interested in her 35mm SLR camera, and about me being a teacher. Her compassion and strength are candles I’ve been warmed by my whole life – all through my life she’s lit my way, and I can’t begin to imagine how many have benefited from the light of those rays.
To view more of Katt's work, visit her website.