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It was in “Athens-by-God-Ohio” that I met her, the feistiest, orneriest, funniest little old lady (short of my mom) I could ever hope to meet.

Cleo was 88, and I was there in Grad school a number of years ago, getting my master’s degree in photojournalism – and I was there without a car.  This limited the stories I could do to pretty much walking or busing distance, and I found that Cleo lived just down the street.

Cleo was as independent as they come, and lived alone, in her own house.  She did her own grocery shopping, did her own chores, and spent occasional afternoons at the senior center in town playing cards or just reminiscing with the dwindling group of friends her own age she could relate to.

Her kids thought she was too old to live by herself, so they decided that she needed to be moved into a nursing home.

In Columbus.

68 miles away.

She disagreed, but it seemed that they were pretty insistent, and they moved her there.

Remember “feisty”?

Well, she promptly hopped a Greyhound back to Athens.

They didn’t mess with her anymore after that.

In talking to her, I found that she did her chores on Saturday, and since I was trying to find a story – I thought that it would be interesting to see what kinds of stories could be told in the pictures I could get of her doing that – so I made an appointment with her for Saturday morning around 10:00.  After we talked and joked a little, I told her that her job was to ignore me, and to just do what she would normally do.

And she did..

She swept.

She dusted.

…and she mopped.

Now when she mopped, she put on these old floppy galoshes, grabbed a bucket of water and whatever cleaner she used, and sloshed water on the floor and mopped it up.  There was no grace to the movements, no pretense.  She wasn’t putting on a show for me, in fact, she was in her own little world, and completely ignoring me, which was just perfect.

I took some pictures of the mop and the galoshes, thinking that would make a good detail shot, and then, as I was focusing, she picked up the bucket and started for the back door.  I followed, getting a shot of her opening the old, dilapidated screen door, and at that moment, the light came on in my head – she was going to throw the water off the back porch!

I literally jumped past her as she hung the mop onto a string, spinning 180 degrees in mid air so I landed facing her somewhere in the middle of the little back yard.  I must have instinctively focused the lens (a 24mm Nikkor) somewhere in mid air because I don’t remember doing it.  I hammered down on the shutter release for the motor drive of my Nikon FM-2 just as she did her back swing to lob the water off the porch, and got a series of 5 shots of the water sloshing out of the bucket into the yard.

Number 3 was the best.

1/250th of a second at f/8.  It wasn’t an easy print.  I printed it as high contrast as I could get – but that meant that the highlights (specifically her right arm, where the sleeve ends and the arm begins) were blasted out pure white and needed to be burned down so you could see detail.  I dodged out the galoshes, making sure you could see them, and used a touch of potassium ferricyanide on the wet mop hanging on the string to make it less of a blob.  I burned the wall of her house down a little darker (photographically, not in real life) so it would fade into the background a little, bringing the water up a bit in the process.

She was 88 years old back in 1987, so I’m sure she’s gone now, but she was a neat lady.  I’m glad to have known her.

Cleo and mop

Cleo throwing the mop water out. © 1987 Tom Roush

Tom Roush


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