A life within a life

In 1955, my grandma found herself pregnant for the third time. She was a 26-year-old redhead, chasing two young boys and, unbeknownst to her, expecting her first daughter — my mom. 

What blows my mind is this: I too started my life inside my grandma. The egg that eventually became me was originally contained inside my mother’s ovaries when she was but a fetus inside her own pregnant mother. 

So too, when my mom was expecting me in 1982 — a 26-year-old stay-at-home mom — the eggs that would eventually give life to my three precious children were contained in my ovaries, tucked deep within my pregnant mom. 

I discovered this fertility tidbit when I was editing a medical pamphlet, and it gave me pause, conjuring an image of Russian nesting dolls and confirming the profound connection I’ve always felt among my grandma, mom and children. 

There’s something poetic about the idea of life within life within life. My Irish-Italian heritage makes me sentimental by nature, but motherhood has taken it to a new level, spurred by oxytocin, sleep deprivation and the Amazon Prime photo app showing images snapped on this date three years ago. 

This story is a reminder that, for those of us parents fortunate enough to have our parents or even their parents still around, we must cherish it. What a shame it would be if busy schedules or long road trips kept us apart. 

When I first became a mom, the lullabies that sprang to mind were the ones my grandma had taught me as a child — You Are My Sunshine, I’m Looking Over a Four-Leafed Clover, I See the Moon. 

I could hear her voice as I rocked my newborn in the corner of her nursery, watching the shadows of an aspen flicker across the window. 

Welcoming three children has felt not only like an expansion, but also a continuation of rites and rituals begun years ago — a line moving forward while also circling back in quiet, comforting ways. 

Somehow we managed to capture that sensation through photography — the love that permeates from my grandma (our beloved, freckled matriarch) and the heady gratitude that overcomes me every time I get to be a link in that four-generation chain.

When I pitched the idea of a photoshoot at a sunflower field, my grandma was as good a sport as ever, undeterred by the hour-long road trip involved. 

“I’ve always loved sunflowers,” she said. 

So one August evening last year, we piled into the Dodge Stow ’N Go, our freshly ironed dresses hanging in the back, and headed north on Highway 65 to Isanti, where Marissa Liljander, a photographer we’d never met before, would greet us with such warmth and understanding she seemed like a cousin. 

We frolicked through the field — picking sunflowers, tickling the toddler, kissing the baby — as geese honked overhead and the sun set, casting a golden light that reflected our sheer delight in being together. 

It felt like a thin place, in the sense of the Celtic concept that, in certain sacred spaces, heaven and earth come so close they nearly touch. I suppose that would make sense. 

Maybe our little gathering at the sunflower field could’ve stirred something in my great-grandmother, who in 1929 carried not only my grandma but also my mom — and even further back in my great-great-grandmother, who in 1893 carried not only her daughter but also my grandma. And so on and so on.

I know how busy it is, how tired you are. 

But take the time for the elders in your life. Get together. Snap the pictures. Tell the stories. Sing the songs. Preserve the chain. 


Marissa Liljander does sunflower mini-sessions each August. Learn more at facebook.com/sweetrootsphoto. To read personal letters written as part of this four-generation project – from mother to daughter – visit mnparent.com/charmed.