A few years ago, when I spent the summers living in a 200 square foot room at the end of a wharf in Provincetown, I came across a somewhat cantankerous older lady – she was in her late 80s – who had taken up residence in an even smaller room at the other end of the wharf. I tend to be English in my neighborly interactions – a polite nod, not imposing – but something about her intrigued me and I had to walk right past her to get to solid ground, so one day, I introduced myself.
We immediately hit it off and soon enough I was corralled, along with countless others in her always expanding – and often young – entourage, into helping her out in small ways, or just chatting, but also as a daily ritual, if I couldn’t pass it off to someone else, holding her hand as she slowly made her way off the wharf onto the sand and into the water. She baptized herself daily – although she is an atheist who simply cannot fathom the kind of faith I am blessed to have – in the bay. It was always a full body dunk – however freezing the water was (you knew it was ice-cold whenever a swimming lesbian told you it was like bathwater). I don’t like cold water, but that just made Norma all the more determined to drag me in. And don’t try to resist. She will simply persist.
I came to love Norma, as did Aaron. She never lies. She never filters. She can be incredibly rude. And ornery. But she was always Norma – and she still is. We just celebrated her 94th birthday.
What you eventually found out was that she was a proud former communist in the 1920s and 1930s (I never let her forget it), sexually liberated long before the 1960s, and a brilliant photographic portraitist, with a particular gift for capturing the faces of women around the world. She just had an exhibit here. Recently, another truly gifted photographer, Jane Paradise, captured Norma’s nineties in a luminescent booklet, “When I Was Young I Was Considered Beautiful”, which you can buy here.
If you come into Provincetown Harbor, you’ll also see vast, canvas portraits of older Portuguese women who once were the backbone of this former fishing village. Norma took those photos.
Aaron turned some of her more haunting work into a slideshow above and I am proud to show it – almost as proud as I am to know this remarkable human being, and the passion and anger and boundless curiosity that make her, in her mid-90s, as alive as anyone I know. And in ways I never truly told her, as HIV haunted me, she helped me learn how to live as well.