For Polish-born photographer Magdalena Wosinska, her mother, Wilhelmina, has long been a muse. For years, she has been documenting her in order to “glorify and immortalize her existence.” Since settling in Los Angeles in 2004, that has meant traveling back home to Phoenix for regular visits. Recently, Wilhelmina was diagnosed with the early stages of dementia. Determined to honor her mamusia, Magdalena decided to take this opportunity to share a piece of her and thank her “for caring, sacrificing, living, teaching, listening, laughing, embracing, reminding, crying, exploring, and loving” her and her two sisters.
Below, find deeply moving images of Wilhelmina over the years, as well as the kind of frank, revealing conversation between mother and daughter that so many of us wish we could have with our own moms.
When did you know you were ready to have kids? Did you want a big family?
In my generation there was no planning regarding kids. I was ready after I got married, I did not think about how big of a family I wanted.
What was the experience like for you physically, carrying and delivering children? Did it change your relationship with your body?
Delivering children is the same to most mothers. It is painful, but happy in the end. I was lucky to come [back] to my original shape soon after delivery.
Have you ever had an abortion?
Yes. I did it without my husband knowing. If I could go back, I would tell myself not to do it. I was nominated to be vice-president of the university in Katowice. It was a very big deal. I already had two young daughters and a third daughter that died two years earlier at the age of 6. I was 38 years old when I had the abortion. Two years later, after I did it on my own, I told my husband. When I was 40 and I was pregnant with you, many people told me to have an abortion because I was bleeding and bedridden for months. I regretted the abortion before so much, so I fought as much as I could to keep you. And now you are here.
Was there something your parents did when you were a kid that you swore you’d never do yourself as a parent?
My mother used to hit me almost for nothing, and I still suffer from these undeserved punishments. I promised to myself never do it to my children.
Can you describe the moment I hurt you the most when I was growing up? What was the moment I made you laugh the hardest? Made you feel most proud?
I do not remember the hurt. You make me laugh when you call me a drunk frog in Polish — you call me that when I pick up the phone and I don’t have a nice tone because my vocal cords are partially paralyzed. I’m most proud of you as a photographer, and you restoring your old Adobe home in the desert.
What was it like being a working mother? Was it what you would have chosen for yourself, or a matter of necessity?
I chose to work and needed to work. My husband and I had very equal roles as working parents and professors. We complemented one another and helped one another. We swapped roles. When he was at work, I was with the kids and when I was at work, he was with the kids. We traded days at the university every other day so one of us was at home.
How much of your mother do you see in you? How much of her do you see in me?
I hope I do not have much of my mother in me because I have been trying my whole life to be different from her. You are totally different from her too.
What do you want for your children? Now, and for the rest of their lives?
I want them to be healthy and professionally successful. I wish for them to have peaceful and long-lasting marriages. Whatever purpose of life they choose, to be satisfied with it, and not complain that it could be better.
Do you want me to have children?
If you have children I will be happy, but if you do not have them it is okay with me.
Can mothers and their children be friends? Should they?
Mothers should do their best to be friends with their children.
What qualities make a good mother? What qualities in you have made you a good mother?
Accepting the child as they/she/he is makes a good mother. My personal good qualities were that I was responsible and disciplined. Whatever job I had to do, I did. There was a structure in my life and consistency in my motherhood.
Was there a time in your life when you started to feel “old”?
I was not thinking about aging until I had a stroke at the age of 65. After the stroke, aging became an issue. I was not myself anymore.
What have you enjoyed most about getting older?
Accepting what I have and not dreaming about something I cannot change.
When you were younger, growing up, what were your feelings about the aging process?
I have not been thinking about aging, and I think most people do not do it. When it came, I accepted it.
What was it like for your mother, getting older? And how was it for you? Did you take care of her?
My mother was living with my youngest sister, and she was taking care of her. I was grateful for this, as we were living on the other side of Poland, so we did not have an opportunity to see my mother on a daily basis.
What differences do you see in cultural attitudes toward caring for our elders in the United States versus in Poland?
In Poland we have the tradition of three generational families, and it is obvious that children take care of parents. This is not the case in America.
What is it like for you to have your children looking after you, that reversal of roles?
In my present situation it is my husband who mostly takes care of me. My children are there, though, whenever there is a need for that. It’s normal to me, for my kids to take care of me. It was different for me with my parents, because my sister took care of them as they lived in the same town.
What do you want your children to tell your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren about you? How do you want to be remembered?
That I had a good and dry sense of humor, and loved to talk about sex and WWII.
Is there anything you’d like to get off your chest?
To have a sense of peace in myself about my relationship with my mother; every time I pray in the evening I ask God to help me to forgive her.