Rolling in Another’s Skates

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Learning to love myself means learning to love others. I’ve discovered they are both sides of the same coin. To quiet the self-berating voice in my mind, I had to stop finding fault in people. In the bible it says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” Growing up, I was taught that verse meant if I were critical of another than I would be judged by God (and thrown into the fires of hell). Today, I believe Christ meant that if we judged others harshly, we will do the same to ourselves. His teachings weren’t about doom and gloom but meant to help free His followers to live in joy.

It’s hard to hold someone’s behavior against them when you realize we all struggle, many of us carrying the baggage of less-than-perfect childhoods and life experiences. That’s not to say that hurtful actions directed at you won’t sting. They do, and the feelings about them shouldn’t be denied. Understanding that we are all born innocent and only do what we’ve learned, makes it easier to trade our resentments in for compassion. I believe that beneath the most obnoxious personality lies a beautiful soul that I am a part of. Truly, we are all one. That is why it’s impossible to pick apart another without doing the same to yourself.

Family systems and societal beliefs have a way of programming us to be fearful. We all want relief from our pain and many lash out at others to unburden themselves. That’s why on a higher level, any kind of attack can be looked at as a call for love. Having empathy for what it would be like to roll in another’s skates, in no way means that you should put yourself in a position to be hurt by wounded people. A good analogy for this lies in an incident that happened to my friend, Gigi, while she was living in Montana. One day out her back door, she spied two adorable bear cubs climbing a tree. Moments later, their mother appeared to help them down. Although Gigi is a wildlife photographer, she didn’t take her camera outside and to try capture the scene. Understanding the protective nature of a mama bear, she knew she could be mauled if she went near them. That bear family was best enjoyed from the safety of her kitchen. In the same way, we have the choice to keep our distance from less than safe people. Like wild animals, some folks are best appreciated from afar.

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A photo of the cubs Gigi was able to snap through her kitchen window.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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Going With the Flow

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Need to absorb an important life lesson? Get it down on paper. I painted this watercolor to remind myself of the ease that comes with surrendering to the flow of life. For as long as I can remember, I have tried to manipulate events to get what I wanted. Career planning seemed a crucial part of directing my path as an artist. This process seemed to be working until the recession hit eight years ago. At that time, I couldn’t get an art director to look at my portfolio to save my life. Even my portrait commissions dried up. It became clear that all the listing, visualizing and pushing toward my goals wasn’t helping them to materialize.

During that frustrating time, the assurance in Matthew 6:33 came to me. “But you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things shall be added to you.” Translation: the Divine takes care of His children. For this to occur, all that’s required is to draw near to Him. After that, all of our other needs will be met. This was radical thinking for a wheel gripper like me, but I felt defeated enough to try it. Relaxing my hold and shifting my focus meant living where God lives – in the now.

Being in the now, means no longer trying to make things happen. I began letting problems work themselves out. I stopped trying to pry open doors that were nailed shut and began walking through the doors that were open. I discovered allowing God to be in control feels much better than trying to force solutions. To my surprise, my artistry was pulled in a direction that I never conceived of. I began writing (something I’d never done before) and illustrating a blog that now runs in the Huffington Post. My next step is to compile my posts into a book. It’s an undertaking that never would have come to me if I were still clinging to my “five year plan.”

Today the original “Going With the Flow” painting hangs in my studio.  It calls to mind the acronym for FROG – Fully Relying On God. I need to be reminded daily of the power of surrender. My little frog rider illustrates that truth perfectly. Like me, she has learned that it’s a waste of time to try and redirect the energy of life. Not only is the present moment missed but you’re too preoccupied to notice the gifts that lie around the bend. Relax and enjoy the ride. The current will take you to places that struggle never could.

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My friend Karli was happy to model for the fairy in my painting.

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The frog is based on this photograph by Gigi Embrechts.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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Don’t Have a Fairy Godmother? Borrow One

Elli&Agapi

Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughter, Agapi

“Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training.” -Anna Freud

I’ve made a practice of gleaning wisdom and support from women I admire. Because my mom was not the “in your corner” type, I learned to do this at a young age. Growing up under her tutelage forced me to figure out ways to get my need for nurturing met. My search led me to reading books with omniscient mother figures and happy endings. It’s no accident that as a child Cinderella was a favorite story of mine. That evil stepmom may have been in control for a time, but she was no match for the powers of a fairy godmother. By fifth grade, I had graduated to being utterly taken with Marmee, the mother of the March sisters, in Little Women. Her steadfast devotion to her girls was the launching pad for them to live their dreams. Somehow reading about the security of unconditional love was healing to me.

In my twenties, I discovered how author Maya Angelo mothered Oprah Winfrey. Her love and wise council helped Oprah to become her “best self.” I began studying other strong women who pointed their daughters in the right direction. I embraced the relationships of Eunice Shriver and her daughter, Maria, Dorothy Howell Rodham and her daughter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and finally Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughters, Agapi Stassinopoulos and Arianna Huffington. All of these mothers inspired me and gave me a lead to follow. Since I considered them as more than mentors, I christened them fairy godmothers. Remember the sparkle Cinderella’s fairy godmother brought to her life? She gave the added magic needed to help Cinderella leave behind the cinders she made her bed in. That’s what these mothers I admire did for me.

One of my favorite of the godmothers is Elli Stassinopoulos.  In my painting above, she’s pictured with her daughter Agapi on Agapi’s 16th birthday. I first read about Elli in Agapi’s book, Unbinding the Heart. Elli was a remarkable woman. She was not accomplished by the world’s standards and yet gave much to the world. Her daughters are living proof of that. Elli knew what was important in life. It was people not things that mattered. There was no hierarchy in her world. She treated a government official and a plumber with the same warmth and generosity. She never allowed her daughters to feel “less than.” She knew that both of them were born with the gifts needed to fulfill their life’s purpose and she stood in support of that. Reading about Elli made me think of how much easier my life would have been if I were raised by a mom like her. My soul would have known its worth, instead of having to fight for it every step of the way. Getting to know Elli helped soothe what I lacked.

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The Photo I based my painting on.

I reached out to Agapi for permission to work from the photograph I based my watercolor on. Elli reminded me of the fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella in the picture. Agapi was kind enough to grant her consent and even gave her thoughts on the art in progress. All along she was pleased that I was capturing her mom’s spirit. What she was having trouble with, was my portrayal of herself. We both knew something was off. Was it her eyes? Or her smile? She could not pinpoint it and in my revisions neither could I. Finally, in frustration, I thought to ask Elli for help. I reasoned that since she had passed away in 2000 she would have the clarity of a higher vantage point. As soon as I sent out my request, I got the distinct feeling to have a glass of red wine and stop trying so hard. I should just relax and enjoy the process. I did just that and had fun tweaking the piece. In a flash, I was done and satisfied with the results. When I sent a file of it to Agapi, she responded,“It’s great!” I smiled as I wondered why I hadn’t called on Elli sooner. Of course she would want me to do justice to her girl.

In my life, I’ve found that within every hardship there are always blessings. I believe I was given the perfect mother to help me become who I was born to be. Without the difficulty of being raised by her, I don’t think I’d have the insight and compassion I do today.  Plus, I may have never discovered the wisdom of these beautiful women I call fairy godmothers. I’ve studied and absorbed how they moved through life. Their philosophies have become my philosophies. Today, I’m happy to say I share their wise council with others who’ve been gifted with moms similar to mine. In this way, even though my fairy godmothers no longer grace the planet, their magic goes on and continues to break the spells that others live under.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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A Love That Never Sleeps

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In preparation for the birth of their baby, my daughter-in-law, Pam, asked me to make an image to hang in our new grandchild’s bedroom. She wanted the prayer Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep with a moon. After reading the prayer, Pam emailed to me I was happy it wasn’t the version I learned in my childhood:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

I discovered that variation came to the American Colonies via the New England-Primer, first published in the late 1600’s. For seventeenth century New Englanders, who had no knowledge of antibiotics, bacteria, or even simple hand washing, losing a child was a very real possibility. Parents were entrenched in the fear of hellfire and damnation so an invocation of protection for their children must have seemed like the prudent thing to do.

For me, being born in the 1950’s, the likelihood of not seeing a child reach adulthood was no longer a major threat. Yet many of us were still taught a prayer with instructions for God to take our souls in case we didn’t wake up in the morning. I never thought how menacing that prayer was until Pam sent over the newer version.

Today I’m happy to say many of us no longer have room in our lives for a harsh, punishing God. We believe our children and grandchildren are made in Love and will come into a world surrounded by a Love that never sleeps. It is good to evolve.

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My son Brian, and his wife Pam with there firstborn. Cameron is sharing his sucker with the new baby.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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1 + 1 + 1 = Love

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Meet Patrick, Cooper, and Bridget, one of the most endearing families I’ve ever met. Cooper is Patrick’s son from a previous relationship, but you’d never know it. When spending time with them, I’m always struck by the love they have for each other. The only thing that would tip one off that Bridget isn’t Cooper’s biological mom is that he calls her, “Babe,” a term of endearment that he picked up from his father.

To create my portrait paintings I work from reference photos. For this watercolor, I ended up combining two group-shots. It can be tricky to get three people (especially when one is a child) to all look their best in one image. I asked Pat to take off his hat mid photo shoot because his face was in shadow. Removing it, left him with a clear case of hat-hair. I knew that I could change that in the artwork by working from a photograph of Pat with his hair gelled and combed. It comes in handy having a brain that fuses and alters images like Photoshop.

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I felt like I’d won the lottery when I was commissioned to paint this piece. Getting paid to do what makes your heart sing is a gift. Plus, the fact that Pat and company are some of the nicest (not to mention beautiful) people around made it a dream job.

In September, this family by choice, will deepen their bond when Pat and Bridget are married. 1+1+1 = Love is Patrick’s love letter, painted through me, to the two most important people in his life. I’m wishing them all the best as they set sail on their happily ever after.1+1=1=Love_detail_edited-red

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

 

 

 

My Only Valentine

Valentine*750“We got this far, darling, not by luck, but by never turning back.”                                         – Mary Chapin Carpenter

My husband, Bob, and I met through mutual friends when he was 20 and I was 21. We went on our first date the following week. He had just gotten out of a tumultuous relationship and was determined never to fall in love again. After hearing that, I figured I’d better proceed with caution. We tried our best not to fall for each other, but our hearts won over our brains. I made the above illustration, featuring Mae West and W. C. Fields, for Bob after we had been dating a year. As an artist, a handmade Valentine is the only way to declare your love.

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When we first met.

One year after we met Bob proposed to me. I said, “yes” but wondered if it was a good idea to tie the knot with the only real boyfriend I ever had. This July it will be 37 years for us. Our commitment to each other has weathered many storms. There was too much drinking on his part and way too much “fixing” on mine. When I finally went and got help for myself, things slowly began to change for the better. Bob got sober and we grew together in a positive direction. That’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing ever since. I’ve always held onto the advice my sister Ann gave me about sticking it out in a marriage. After three husbands, she had come to the conclusion that you should work out your troubles, if you can, because no marriage is problem free.

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On our wedding day, July 28, 1979.

In hindsight, I can see that Bob and I had no business getting married when we were 23. We were way too young. I question the wisdom of conceiving our oldest child six months later too. What was our hurry? I think in Bob’s case it seemed like the right thing to do because he came from a huge Irish/Catholic family. In my case, I adored kids and was certain that love would take care of the details. Thankfully, in the end, it always did.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. – Robert Browning

Yes, there is something to be said for growing old together. Being with someone longer than you’ve been without them brings the kind of comfort that a well worn pair of shoes does. Not exactly a romantic notion, until you consider the discomfort that can come from breaking in a new pair. As we age, our love deepens. Sure, Bob and I still can get on each other’s nerves, but we have the presence of mind to let many of the little annoyances go. We are two separate individuals and have come to respect our differences.

Next June, after forty years at his job as a signal maintainer, Bob will be retiring. I have to admit I do worry about having him around all the time. In my work as an  author and artist, I need solitude to reflect and allow inspiration in. At other times, I am not concerned at all about him invading my space, and am looking forward to adventures with him and our grand babies. One thing is certain, the man I married all those years ago deserves a break. He has worked tirelessly to support his family and his wife’s dream of being an artist. It’s his time to fulfill some dreams of his own.

It looks like Bob and I will be approaching this next phase of our lives much like we did our marriage. Jump in and figure out how to swim later. When you think about it, how much of life can you truly plan anyway? What I do know for sure is the love that has carried us through the early, and middle years is not going to fail us now.

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On our 35th wedding anniversary.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Live From the Inside Out

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. -Steve Jobs

Live From the Inside Out

Live from the inside out. That’s my motto for the year. I have put the kibosh on following social convention and fulfilling other’s expectations. Living in a box of someone else’s making leaves little room for sharing your gifts with the world.

Over the years, I’ve learned to actually feel when my heart is speaking to me. It takes quieting the mind to discern the embedded whisper. Granted, many times I’ve ignored that guidance and gone into my brain. There is nothing like trying to reason your way to safety for a sense of false security. Being safe and being an artist do not go hand in hand.

I’m a firm believer that we are born to share our gifts with the world. The older I get the clearer it becomes that I’m just passing through this realm. That knowledge is what has brought me to the decision to take directions from within. Living from the inside feels risky until I consider the ticking clock. American author Erma Bombeck said,  “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”

Allegra was the perfect model for my illustration. Living from the inside out is something she was born doing.

Allegra was the perfect model for my illustration. Living from the inside out is something she was born doing.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Being Open to Magic

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ― W.B. Yeats

Magic is everywhere. Like in my painting it’s right outside your window looking in, frequently unnoticed. It’s not that we don’t believe that anything is possible. Often we are blind to miracles because we have tunnel vision. We are so locked into our limited perception we can’t see what’s smiling at us through the porthole on the ship we’re sailing. It’s good to have dreams and plans but not to map out how they are to be manifested.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Robertson Davies

Last week while babysitting my grandson, the concept of “seeing only what my mind is prepared to comprehend,” was brought to my attention. While Cameron was napping, I went to the refrigerator to get a bottle knowing that he would be waking soon. When I opened the door, I couldn’t  find the blue carrying case his parents brought his bottles in. From top to bottom, I searched the refrigerator for that case. I looked everywhere, even in the freezer. Eventually, I put on rubber gloves and rooted through the garbage, to make sure I hadn’t thrown it out by accident. No luck. I was comforted that I had discovered a bottle of frozen breast milk in my search but didn’t know what I was going to do for the rest of the day. Finally, it came to me that I should surrender the situation to God and ask for help. And so I did.

I decided to poor a cup of coffee and relax until my little charge awoke. When I reached into the fridge for the creamer, to my surprise, I saw four baby bottles of milk grouped on the bottom shelf. How could I have missed them? I’ll tell you how. I was so fixated on locating the blue case I couldn’t see anything else. Surrendering helped me to loosen the grip on my perception and opened me up to what was right in front of me. It made me wonder how many other things I’ve missed in my life.

“That is certainly one way to look at the matter. There are others.” Patricia C. Wrede

In my mermaid image lives the perfect reminder of why I must stay loose with what I think I know. It’s good to have a vision but let a higher source fine tune it. That is the formula that brought my porthole painting into being. The figures in it are my daughter-in-law and grandson, Cameron. Pam grew up near Boston and spent her summers by the ocean. She has what we like to call saltwater in her veins. When I found out she was pregnant, I immediately began seeing her as a mermaid, stretched out on a rock, holding a shell to her merbaby’s ear. When Cam was born, I prepared for the illustration, by photographing the perfect “mermaid rock” for them to be sunbathing on. Now all I had to do was get photo references of my two muses. That had to be put on hold until Cam was old enough for his mom to hold him while he listened to the sound of the sea in a shell.

The mermaid rock I came across on Lucy Vincent Beach in Martha's Vineyard.

The mermaid rock I came across on Lucy Vincent Beach in Martha’s Vineyard.

One day last July, the plan for my illustration took on a new direction when Pam texted me a selfie of her and Cam. In the photo, Pam’s hair flowed across a pillow and her little guy, laying next to her, had a look of pure wonder on his face. It was magical. I knew the moment I saw it that it was the photo I would base my art on. I’m so grateful I was open enough to see that the sea creatures I wanted to bring to life weren’t sunbathing, but looking through a porthole, right into my soul.

The selfie that pointed my imagination in another direction.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Art Elevates

Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. -Khalil Gibran

My best friend Gigi and I have deep conversations about where we are going as artists. I am an author/illustrator, she a photographer extraordinaire. One day she asked me why I felt compelled to share my art with the world. I was stumped. I had a vague sense that my talent is here to make the world a more beautiful place. But what’s the use of beauty? It has no worth that can be measured or weighed.

The arts are part of the force that keeps violence and despair in check, that keeps hope alive. -Lynne Taylor – Corbett

Then my mind went back to September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I had the television on constantly. I listened to the media drone on about Homeland Security’s color-coded threat levels while I worked in my studio. I became frightened out of my mind. At my wits end, I walked out the back door and found my husband weeding the garden. He hugged me as I sobbed and told me to turn the TV off. After that I made a conscious decision to put my attention on what is beautiful, to what uplifts.

I began listening to music by George Harrison, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. Their melodies and lyrics soothed me. I can remember watching movies like, Fried Green Tomatoes and Father of the Bride. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I poured over children’s picture books and absorbed their exquisiteness. Gradually, I was brought back into feeling that a source of good exists and watches over us. Me, and those I love were safe.

Since that time I am very careful about the kind of energy I expose myself to. I no longer immerse myself in the news but glance at it. I keep my focus on what brings me to a higher place. Without fail, beauty does that.

Something sacred, that’s it. It’s a word that we should be able to use, but people would take it the wrong way. You want to be able to say a painting is as it is, with its capacity to move us, because it is as though it were touched by God. -Pablo Picasso

Whenever I sit down to draw I’m always at a loss. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. Understanding the responsibility of sharing my gifts makes it even worse. After I finally put my pencil to paper, something begins working through me. Some people call it creativity but I call it God. As skilled as an artisan as I am, without his energy guiding my hand my illustrations would be flat. A collaboration with the Creator is always a sure-fire way to bring forth the amazing.

I heard in an interview with Pharrell Williams that, like me, he wants to use his gifts to lift people up. He was asked, “Are you afraid if you give yourself too much credit, it would all go away?”

“For sure,” he said. “You see people spin out of control like that all the time. I mean, those are the most tragic stories, the most gifted people who start to believe it’s really all them. It’s not all you. It can’t be all you. Just like you need air to fly a kite, it’s not the kite. It’s the air.” Listening to his song, “Happy,” makes me want to catch that same breeze.

Grass Is Greener

Beauty is alive and well in the fine-art photography of Gigi Embrechts.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Hope Lives in Books

Bookworm

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. –Marcel Proust

The drawing above is one of my favorites. It illustrates a scene from a children’s book my sister Laura wrote about author, Lillian Hellman. In her memoir, An Unfinished Woman, Lilly tells of how at age eight she would ditch school unnoticed and hideout in a fig tree next to her home. She rigged a pulley rope for her lunch basket, and made a sling to hold her schoolbooks. To keep her dress and shoes neat she hung them on a nail. It would never do to raise suspicion of her whereabouts. The finishing touch was a comfortable pillow to sink into. She did this once or twice a week. It was here that Lilly learned to read and found a refuge from the adults in her life. The fig tree was her sanctuary where she fell into the holy, wonder of the written word.

“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” — Madeleine L’Engle

My sister and I loved that anecdote about Lilly. Being avid readers and tree-climbers in our youth, we understood the haven she had created in those branches. It was her way of having power in a world where she was powerless.

As girls books gave us that same kind of comfort. We not only read to be entertained but unknowingly used it to work out the anguish we lived with. Books were one of the bright spots in a bleak childhood. Our mom didn’t have what it took nurture us. She was a product of the societal expectations of the 1950’s. After marrying our father, she quit the job she loved as a newspaper editor when she became pregnant. She had a child every year for the next four years. Frustrated and ill-equipped to run a household, she directed her rage at us. She was a dead ringer for the wicked queen in the copy of Snow White she had given me. It became a favorite story of mine and I absorbed its message. In its pages lived the hope that despite being under the thumb of an evil queen, there was still room for a happy ending.

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light. –Vera Nazarian

My mom passed away five years ago. Today I look at her with kinder eyes. I’m certain she did the best she could with what she had. Although there were many things she was not, she did share with us her passion for reading. She was generous with books and our house overflowed with them. And despite being trapped in a life of hurt and misunderstanding I think she now  smiles knowing that inside the books she gave us were placed the keys to freedom.

My Dad and Mom walking over the threshold of high expectations on their wedding day.

My Dad and Mom walking over the threshold of high expectations on their wedding day in 1953.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com