It was a project launched years ago by a son and his mother simply as “something to do,” but it has had staying power.
Bernie Saunders, a photographer, had suggested to his 81-year-old mother, Kay, a poet, that they collaborate on a creative project. The result morphed into a book titled “The Grace of Ordinary Days,” which is just what they discovered in themselves as they worked.
Kay died before the finished work was published, but the book she and her son created continues to sell, and he has spoken all over the country about its themes of relationship. Now, 13 snapshots from the book, which features portraits of flowers, are on exhibit at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts through Feb. 5.
The images convey the flowers’ individuality — their rich colors and textures and the interplay of light and shadow. They also give a feel for the flowers’ life span, from buds to enveloping “wrinkled wisdom,” as Bernie put it.
For the collaboration, Bernie sifted through the photos he’d taken for his “Soul of Flowers” series, which came from his neighbors’ gardens and his own household plants. Saunders, who’s long been interested in nature photography, saw the plant life as a source of renewal.
At the same time, Kay assembled many of the poems she’d written over the years. As they got immersed in the project, “We said, ‘We have something here,’ ” Bernie said.
They were motivated to use their art to convey the lessons they’d learned about relationships and it occurred to them to do it in book form. Saunders did market research to scope out similar works, but “there was nothing, not a thing about the relationship between a mother and son.”
As they worked, Kay’s condition declined and she “was in and out of being able to work.” The last year of their collaboration, in particular, was rough. But whenever she had a burst of energy, Bernie would head over to her house for a few days and give it his all.
The mother and son created assignments for themselves. For example, they both listed what they considered their most significant shared events. It led to many deep conversations. Eventually, they pared down the list to eight major events, each writing their own take.
Those biographical tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book. One snippet reflects on “The Ravine” near the home Bernie grew up in. Another piece, “Acceptance,” relates his acceptance as a high school senior into the Peace Corps. “Waiting Up” addresses Bernie’s alcoholism.
The two divided the content into the early, middle and later years, mirroring the growth of a flower. Then they paired the vignettes and poems with the flower photos. Bernie remembers spreading out hundreds of photos on the floor. How did they choose? “It was an intuition kind of thing,” he said.
One photo that accompanies a piece about a conflict they’d had shows a colorful flower in which the petals appear to be embracing each other, as if “part of the flower was being protected by the larger petals,” Saunders said. It parallels his mother’s instinct to shield him.
It took six years to complete the book, which came out in 2005. Kay died in December of 2003, so she didn’t get to see the final product, but Bernie was glad to bring it to fruition. They designed “The Grace of Ordinary Days” as a gift book, so that people would spend time to “enhance a relationship legacy with someone,” Bernie said.
Throughout the process, he gained a deeper respect for his mother, what she had to offer the world. “It softened our relationship. We had honest conversations and we were willing to be there for each other, to support each other,” he said. It didn’t mean that the past had changed, but rather, “It was about getting over” the conflicts they’d had. To do so, they had to be willing to be vulnerable, he added.
All of these years later, the pictures and the book still draw in readers. Their message: “in our wild and crazy world, trying to keep some mindfulness about who we are and why it’s important.” It can be tough to sustain relationships. “We’re saying to people, ‘slow down and look at what’s important before it’s too late.’ It changed me in that way,” Bernie said.
“So often in our culture, with someone elderly, we’re not doing that closure,” he said. The book is about “finding the gracefulness of an ordinary day, even if that day is in the tanker.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.