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SUBURBAN DIARY

How sharing photos helps bridge the 1,000 miles that keep us apart

For one of the entries in the album, Nancy Shohet West took a photo of a young bull (right) that joined the herd at her parents’ Carlisle farm.
For one of the entries in the album, Nancy Shohet West took a photo of a young bull (right) that joined the herd at her parents’ Carlisle farm.Nancy Shohet West

After my daughter left for college last fall, I struggled with my inability to visualize her new surroundings. As with many of last year’s high school seniors, her spring campus visits had been canceled and she’d chosen a college sight unseen. Now she lived 1,000 miles away in a city I’d never visited.

When I realized that she and I were often out walking at the same early morning hour — Holly on the bike path not far from her dorm at the University of Wisconsin and me on the quiet country roads of our neighborhood northwest of Boston — I had an idea.

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“Let’s each post one photo for every day of 2021 to a shared album, so we can get a glimpse of what the other one is doing,” I suggested.

Of course, Holly already knew the layout of my day: working from home, taking the dog for walks, tending to the household. I was the one who stood to benefit by getting some much-needed visibility into her daily life.

Nonetheless, she gamely agreed, and the two of us devised some ground rules for our challenge. First and foremost, we settled on one parameter: Whatever the photo depicted, somewhere in the frame there had to be sky. Thus the name of our project, “The Sky’s the Limit.”

Other rules were that the picture had to be taken the same day it was posted and we could each use only one photo per day. On Jan. 1, we began.

Holly was home for the holidays at the time, but she would be returning soon to her college campus and the bustling state capital in which it is nestled. I, on the other hand, wasn’t sure I’d be leaving town at all for the foreseeable future, and wondered wistfully if I’d be confined to posting photos from various points in our backyard.

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Holly West took this photo on the campus of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Every day, she and her mother each post a photo to a shared album.
Holly West took this photo on the campus of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Every day, she and her mother each post a photo to a shared album. Holly West

Three months in, it’s interesting to scan through our album and see how it has taken shape. In keeping with my original inspiration, a lot of the photos come from our morning walks. Mine show the sun rising over the woods and marshes of Carlisle; hers reflect Madison’s snowbanks and frozen lakes. Other times, the photos have been topical. I snapped a shot of Holly’s grandmother standing outside on her 82nd birthday; the American flag flying on the town green on Inauguration Day; my husband exiting the medical center after his vaccination. Holly has included pictures of the COVID testing site she’s required to visit twice a week and the view of the sunset from her dorm room. But I’ve had a peek at some of her more interesting outings as well: an evening bike ride around the grounds of the state Capitol; an excursion to an outdoor skating rink.

Sometimes I serve up familiar sights from our hometown: a bus parked outside the elementary school, the library façade illuminated after dark. Other days I turn to the living beings she might be missing: her brother doing yardwork, the dog sleeping on the front porch. And once in a while I go for a touch of humor, like when I uncovered her stash of Christmas candy and took a picture of the empty wrapper after I ate her last marshmallow Santa — profiled against the sky, in keeping with our fundamental rule.

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With general pandemic guidelines still in effect and myself far at the back of the queue for vaccination, I sometimes despair of how geographically limited my life has become. It seems I hardly even cross town lines these days. But, I’ve discovered, the photos don’t reflect this monotony. Even as I walk along the same roads nearly every day, look out the same kitchen window into the same yard, I’ve captured images of wild turkeys perched on a tree branch; a new bull at my parents’ farm; friends dropping by for a masked visit on our patio. Previously overlooked beauty has emerged from the seemingly ordinary sights around me: clouds reflected in a vernal pool, mist gathering in the trees.

Before the pandemic, an elderly acquaintance whom I was helping to write a memoir shared one of her favorite quotations. “Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day.” At the time it seemed a little mundane, but now, I think of that quotation often. Not every day is picturesque, but there’s something photo-worthy in every day. And if we meet our goal, when we’re done Holly and I will have 730 photos to reflect the curiosity and beauty of our lives as they unfolded and diverged — and, optimally, intersected — throughout 2021.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.