A Brief History of Loss, Life, and Healing in an American Family
After the sudden passing of Rebecca Arthur’s mother in the summer of 2014, still grieving, she left her childhood home of Fayetteville, New York, to begin school in New York City. Arthur, who had a difficult relationship with her family, used the time away as an excuse to forget about life in Fayetteville. A few years later, when her sister gave birth to a son, Arthur decided to put the pieces back together. She saw her nephew as the bridge to a new beginning, one that could prevent the family from falling apart. After spending several years away, she felt the need to reconnect with her childhood and re-establish a relationship with her siblings and her stepfather. Arthur’s images depict her family’s new dynamics in the wake of her mother’s death and her nephew’s birth. With low natural light and the soft grain of the film, what Arthur captures is beautiful and raw. There is palpable care and love within this family, yet just as present is the tender wound of loss.
The series is called The House That Built Me. Tell me about your family and your upbringing. What was the house like for you growing up?
I grew up in Fayetteville, a suburb of Syracuse, New York. I went to a predominantly white high school, although the life I had at school didn’t mirror the one I was living at home. My mother got divorced when I was 2 and remarried when I was 5 years old, but she was the breadwinner for a household of 5. We had a lot of money problems growing up. Sometimes our power would be shut off for months at a time, or my mom couldn’t get the money to pay a $3 co-pay on my asthma medication. But she never made it feel like we were struggling. We had good clothes and never looked the part of a struggling family.
These images were made a few years after your mother’s death. Tell me about what she meant to you and how the loss changed you and your family.
I had gotten into New York University on February 14th; I will always remember that day. I was so excited and my mother literally could not find the words to express how she felt. I think she couldn’t believe one of her kids got into such a great school, and then couldn’t fathom how she’d pay for it all. She told me she’d do whatever she could, and I am almost positive she said she’d die to get me there.
On June 28th, two weeks after my high school graduation, I went to NYC to visit a friend and look around NYU. My mom dropped me off that morning, gave me a kiss, said I love you, and then I was off. I met up with a friend when I got there and within an hour I got a phone call from my sister asking me if mom was okay when she dropped me off. She was frantic and quickly hung up the phone. Later in the day on my way home, my sister called me on the bus and said mom was in the hospital. She had a brain aneurysm and a stroke. Seeing my mother after her stroke was the scariest thing I’d ever witnessed. I didn’t know what was going to happen to her. My mother would move involuntarily and mumble. I went to her bed and told her to blink once if she could hear me, and she did. I told her she was going to get better, and come visit me in NYC and experience college with me, because she never had the chance to. Three days before my 18th birthday, on July 24th, she passed. Her heart gave out and there was nothing they could do about it. I was basically an orphan, about to move my whole life to New York City, alone.
Tell me about leaving Central New York, it must have been difficult to have to start school so soon after your mother’s death.
Exactly one month before move-in day, my mom died. On August 24th, 2014 I was on the road with my aunts to move into my dorm at NYU. I remember the moment my aunts left me at my dorm, I put on a cool outfit and felt as free as a bird. I had contact with my family, but I was basking in my time away from them. Each year of college I went home less and less. I started taking photos of my family a little bit each time I went home, although I didn’t know this project would happen. My mom always wanted me to photograph her, but as a high school photographer, I didn’t think my mom was a good subject. I will always regret never photographing her.
How did your nephew’s birth change your relationship to your family?
My nephew Liam was going to be a new member of the family and I was going to be an aunt, and my first thought was that I needed to be there and support him. I wanted to document his life for him, and also my siblings and dad as well—since I never did that for my mom. The weekend Liam was born, I took a trip to Syracuse with my camera and made some photos. Once I saw them, I knew this was going to be a project I had to pursue.
Many of the shots are low light, at night, and have this really mysterious yet warm vibe. What attracts you to making these kinds of photos?
That was how the lighting was in our home. I was trying to capture and appreciate how it was through my photos, since I hated it growing up. I didn’t want anything to be different than how it truly was. I wanted it to feel real, I didn’t want it to be staged and extravagant—because it wasn’t. I couldn’t believe that I had such hatred toward my home growing up and I realized its beauty each time I went back.
One of my favorite portraits is of Carl, your stepfather, shaving in the mirror. What role did he play in your family dynamic?
Carl and my mother married in 2001 and he had been a part of my life ever since. My relationship to him was good, but I still had resentment over the fact that he wasn’t my real father, even though he was the only father I really ever had. We got along, but sometimes we fought. After my mom died, I felt terrible that he no longer had her, so our relationship got better and better. I wanted to make up for all the time I had been mean to him and treated him badly. So when he died in December 2018, it was hard to come to terms with that, and I still am struggling with it.
Does your family still live in this house?
My sister, brother, and step father lived in the house until the end of June 2018. My sister and dad moved out and it had gotten to the point where my brother couldn’t afford it by himself, so we had to sell it and move all of our stuff out. We lived there for 18 years, and I had to make a trip back home to dispose of everything in the house. My family was angry and didn’t want to help. It was hard to decide what I wanted to keep or not. I ended up throwing everything out. It was very emotionally taxing, especially after finishing this series. I am the youngest and I had full jurisdiction over what to keep and what to throw away. It was like digging through a graveyard.
What role do you see yourself playing in the project? There are a few self-portraits in the collection, but I was wondering if you see yourself as an insider or outside or somewhere in between?
I see myself as both. I will always be a part of this family, but because I left after my mother’s passing—the grieving that we did away from each other I think created a whole different aspect of “family” that I don’t know. As I keep on moving and living my life, I will always feel that way. I think in some ways my family has resentment towards me for doing all of the things I am doing. I know that there will always be some part of my family that has mended, and other parts that are torn. Maybe that’s how all families work, but it’s hard to recognize and understand it. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
About the Photographer
Rebecca Arthur (external link) is a photographer currently serving as an ArtistYear AmeriCorps member in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, teaching photography to high school students in a Title I school. She uses photography to share stories on the themes of family and identity. Her work evokes the discomfort of empathy, beauty, strength, and power. Arthur won the Silver Eye Fellowship Keystone Award in 2019. This September, she will be moving to France for a photography and research Fulbright Award.
Photo Essay foregrounds the work of both emerging and established photographers whose images examine the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.