She sat every day in her white minivan in the parking lot, surrounded by her few possessions. The October chill promised an early winter. Yet, she stayed there quiet, still, never speaking to anyone. Several evenings I walked later than usual and noticed her van, still parked in the same place. She was actually sleeping there at night. Unsure if I would be accepted, I finally walked over to say hello.
I saw an older woman with the most beautiful clear blue eyes, shining out of a face marked by time and sorrow. “How are you doing?” I asked.
A tiny sigh breathed in the air, as she quietly studied me. “I’m a little discouraged, I guess.”
“Are you homeless?”
“I was a caregiver here in town, living with my charge. We became very close. But her kids came home from Europe and said they no longer needed my services. “So I’m living in my car while I look for another job.”
Over several days I learned her name was Sarah and she was 79. Ten years before she had been a successful artist, living in Santa Fe. She showed me a stack of photo albums and several paintings she’d done, now hidden in the back of the van. I was so impressed with her talent, fascinated by her stories and pictures of studying art in Italy as a young woman. Her father had been wealthy and wanted her to have the best education.
Keenly aware of her need to project pride and self confidence, I asked her if she would allow me to photograph her, providing I could pay for her time and use her image. “Why would you photograph an old, withered woman living in her van?” she wondered.
Over several weeks we sat in that van sharing our lives, laughing and crying over the sad or happy times, until I was finally able to convince her to accept a few large quilts, a pillow, and a pad to sleep on. In return she insisted on giving me one of her lovely paintings. Sarah sat for many photos, which I learned helped to pay for gas and some hot meals. The library encouraged her to use one of the private study rooms during the day, where she worked on her resume and made many phone calls to look for work.
We sorted through the photos of her as a young woman studying art and traveling around Italy and Spain on a small Vespa, often surrounded by friends and her handsome father. I was stunned by her great beauty at that time, as a hopeful, joyous young woman with a zest for life.
Eventually a young post-doc at the Lab offered to fly her home to her sister in Chicago. When we said goodbye, she gave me another small painting and a beautiful sweater from Italy, wrapped in tissue in a blue box with the tag still on it.
The parking lot seemed so empty after she left.