Losing her memory, a 94-year-old became her son's muse and model - and an international sensation

Elia Luciani's son tries to reconnect her with her lost childhood through his art. PHOTO: TONY LUCIANI

(Washington Post) - When dementia began to fray Elia Luciani's mind, her recent history disappeared first, clearing the way for memories from her youth to burn more brightly.

Growing up in the 1920s and 30s in a small village east of Rome, her family had olive groves, vineyards and livestock. When her father died young, of pneumonia, her mother was left with two young girls, and at 13, Elia was wed to a stranger, in an arranged marriage in which she had no say. Her husband was 26.

She didn't go to him straight away, but being married effectively ended her childhood. At 15, she'd be skipping rope with her friends in the piazza when he'd return after weeks of herding goats in the mountains, for a bath and a hot meal. She would see the unshaven stranger pass by, knowing that this was her husband.

Nearly a century later, when her mind started to fail, those scenes were what she remembered. And those memories were what sparked her photographer son, Tony Luciani, to turn his mother's decline into art.

From 2014, when she moved into his home in Durham, Ontario, a couple of hours northwest of Toronto, to the present, he has been documenting her life, and her decline, in hundreds of photographs, along with some paintings and video.

In one photo, an old lady with white hair and stooped shoulders stands against a wall in the sun. Her shadow, slanted against the wall, reflects a young girl pushing a toy pram.

In another, two wrinkled hands hold up a life-size photo of a dark-haired young woman, sliced in half so that it mirrors the holder's wizened face.

Elia Luciani, 94, mostly remembers moments from her youth. PHOTO: TONY LUCIANI

Another shows 94-year-old Elia today, standing on one leg on a hopscotch grid, an old woman embracing a game of childhood. "She went from being a child to being a mother and she missed the in-between," Luciani explained. "So her recollections are wanting to be that little girl again."

There are also references to her life as a young woman. She and her husband and young children migrated to Canada in 1954 when she was 31, and worked in a Toronto garment factory where she became head of the sewing department. Along with English, she learned enough Chinese, Korean, Russian and German to speak with her workers.

She has lost all that now. She and her son speak together in Italian dialect, the only language she still has.

When Luciani began the series, his mother was an active participant, giving her feedback on the photos and coming up with ideas. "She tells me stories and I have a visual," he said. "She loves the process. She loves joining in and making photographs."

At one point, he gave her a simple point-and-shoot camera and she began taking her own photos, poking the camera into the refrigerator to take a picture, shooting into the bedroom mirror, or taking photos of the suburban area during her daily walk. She also attached a video recorder to her rollator, capturing video of her walk. A loop of that was screened at an exhibit of mother-and-son photographs this year.

Since breaking her arm on a walk this year, she has moved to a nearby care home. Even as her memory has faltered to the point that she cannot recall his name, her son has continued the project, although he says that treading the line between including her as a participant vs. using her as an object gets harder as her dementia progresses.

"There's a line there, isn't there?" he said. He takes his lead from the fact that he talked with her a lot about the work while she could still talk about it.

He recalled that in the summer of 2016, while having lunch with him on the deck, she said, "I have so much in my head and it's not coming out. It's all jumbled up. Sometimes I want to scream it out, but I don't want anybody to hear me."

"I said, 'Mom, do you want to let it all out? Just do that now.' And she said no. Then a few minutes later I looked up and she had her hands over her ears and her mouth open, silently screaming, and then she laughed and said, 'That looks so stupid.'"

Luciani didn't agree. They ended up doing a series with her screaming face pressed against a glass pane.

Even now, she still tells stories that give him ideas, "like how she'd wait in the middle of a field and a mule cart would come along to take her down the hill to school", he said.

His more recent photographs show her in her room at the home, sitting on a bed looking at an image of her younger self, or replicated in different positions around the room - attempts to "relay a sense of loneliness, of self, reflecting all those things that happen when you're by yourself".

Last year, Luciani posted some photos online, and his mother unexpectedly made headlines around the world - including the cover of a magazine in Poland and the front page of a newspaper in Holland. She began receiving hundreds of postcards from Europe, South America, Asia and Australia, a showering of attention that baffles her.

"She doesn't understand the internet," Luciani said. "She doesn't know how or where they came from."

Some of the postcard writers reflect on their own lives. "They're using my mom and myself as a way of capturing something that maybe they should have done," he said.

Others write to say the work pushed them to spend more time with their own parents and grandparents.

"Dear Mamma," read one. "With all my heart I wanted to send you Happy Mother's Day greetings. It's been 21 years since I've have been able to do that. But your relationship with your Tony so reminds me of my relationship with my Mama for so many reasons. Since she has passed, I have re-ignited my love for photography. This white rose is for you."

A series of 100 photos of Luciani's mother was recently accepted by the Alzheimer's Society of Canada, which is planning an exhibition in Toronto next year that will also include her photographs; another exhibit is planned at a museum in 2019.

Luciani said he never intended that the project become such a public spectacle; he started it for himself. When his father, brother, and nephew died, he didn't have time to process letting go.

"I'm holding on to Mum, and I'm holding on to our time," he said. "I didn't have a chance to do that with the others; they were just too sudden. I'm saying goodbye to her very slowly. I'm treasuring this long goodbye."

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