"'Painting' a Picture of Norma"
About the filmmaker
"If You're Going to do Something, Do Your Best"
story & photographs by Lillie Cummings
That is Norma Carmines's mantra—Do Your Best! This is a four-part series on Norma Carmines, a resident of the Arbors in Newport News. The series takes you through different facets of understanding Norma: through an introduction, about her person mantra, her most important job, and her life today. It was truly an honor to work with Norma and I hope you enjoy the series.
This Is Norma
This is Norma Carmines: a mother, wife, daughter, retired schoolteacher, sorority woman, and resident of Newport News. Like the blue outfits she wears, Norma exudes a calm and welcoming presence. The daughter of the first woman to go to college in Poquoson, Virginia, and a local waterman, Norma grew up living in that tightknit community. She remarks that she grew up in a house filled with nothing but love, and felt she brought that to her home when she had her own children.
Skilled in mathematics and sciences, Norma was top in her class in high school and went to James Madison University for a year, which she felt was a rather stupid idea as she got straight A’s. She transferred to William and Mary and became a sister of Gamma Phi Beta. In college, she was able to create another tight-knit community away from her home. “There was always someone to do something with, always something going on.” She told me. She married her husband, another local, after college and after the war.
The wedding was certainly an event that had the community talking. “They said I paid $800 for my dress. I would have never paid that much.” She told me that the lady she always got her clothes from told her not to worry about her dress. Norma trusted her and he went to New York City and brought it down for the wedding. It was blue because it brings out her eyes. Eventually Norma became a teacher, just like her mother, where she was able to share her knowledge and kindness with so many other people. Norma recalled a time where one day her husband came home from work to find Norma sitting with one of her students in the kitchen having lunch. She said her husband laughed but wasn’t surprised. That’s just who Norma is.
“If you’re going to do something, do your best.” Mrs. Carmines repeats her mantra to me as she changes her clip-on earrings. She organizes her costume jewelry in pill bottles to keep pairs together and for the sheer fact that she just has a lot of pill bottles. She rummages her hand through the top dresser draw, a pass down from her youngest son, looking for various pairs to show me.
She pulls out another orange bottle and examines its contents in her hand. “Do you see how these are similar, but different. These are an off-white and the others are white.” I couldn’t entirely tell the difference, but I nodded and she continued to look at her collection. Mrs. Carmines finds a pair she feels satisfied with and sits down in the padded chair adjacent to her twin-size bed in the tiny bedroom of her apartment.
I came to visit Mrs. Carmines at an opportune time as her daily helpers were finishing their part of her morning routine. It was now Norma's chance to continue her ritual as she properly accessorizes her chosen outfit and finishes it all with the most important step: her lipstick. At 92, the wrinkles on her face are well defined and her pure white hair curls atop her head in various directions. Norma is not vain by any means, but holds steadfast that being able to look your best allows you to do your best, even if it’s just to tackle the day.
When I inquire what a typical day looks like for her, she remarks that there is nothing she particularly does. “Now that I’m older, time doesn’t matter much anymore. It isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t a good thing. It just is.”
Mrs. Carmines slowly pulls herself up by the arms of the chair to sort through the dresser and pulls out a large envelope with various sized photos inside. They were headshots of Norma in an assortment of poses, all with the same blue blazer and curly white hair. Norma shows me her favorites and points out the differences in each. Blue is her favorite color, she tells me. It has always looked good on her. Norma flips through the wallet-sized photos and explains that she was going to get these photos done with her husband but they could never quite figure out a time to get them done. 5"x7" Norma smiles at us as her hand softly frames her face. I remind her that she hasn’t put her lipstick on yet. She smiles and pops open a well-worn tube of coral lipstick and glides it on her lips. It’s now 11:30 a.m. and she’s ready for her day.
A diptych of two identical boys in identical boy scout uniforms sits on a two-tiered coffee table in the middle of the sun-drenched living room. “Their grandmother could never tell them apart, but I always could.” Norma’s eyes graze over the small photos and remembers how there was not a single thing the boys didn’t do together.
She looks up for a moment and informs me that she supposes she should disclose the most important moment of her life with me. The transition of a single child becoming a sibling is one that can rock a person to her core, but being a big sister was one of Norma’s greatest joys. When she was six years old, she begins to explain, her mother gave birth to twin boys and to Norma, this was the biggest and best thing that could have ever happened to their small family.
“Most children have one brother or one sister, but not Norma, because I had two.” Jim and Joe, named after their paternal and maternal grandfathers, were a welcomed addition to the small family and where Norma’s mother saw a new, rambunctious duo to look after, Norma found an opportunity to help twofold. Trips on the family boat now meant extra eyes needed to be used to make sure the twins didn’t end up overboard. So breezy, summer mornings on the “Pauline D” included the whole family.
The deepness of her care for her twin brothers is most prominent when Norma also describes one of the saddest moments of her life: when one brother was able to graduate from Virginia Tech and the other did not. Norma looks intently into the photos again as she rests on her couch, holding the diptych up to focus. “It was an English class. Jim could never pass that English class.” She glances away and says she wish there was something she could have done if she’d known. “They did everything together and it broke my heart when one was able to achieve something the other couldn’t.”
Maybe we would have all been a little better off with an older sister like Norma, who saw an addition to her family as a deepening of love and not a thinning of it.
Norma doesn’t have curtains on her windows. The soft, natural lighting radiates through the blinds and basks the apartment in a warm blanket like a lazy, afternoon nap. One of the assisted living aids rustles a basket of laundry behind us as a hymn softly emits from the radio. Norma explains that her decoration choice is more out of function than style. “I could make curtains or go buy them, but then I would need to put them up, dust and clean them.” She paused for a moment and continued. “Then once you get so sick of them you need to take them down, wash them, and put them back up and I would need help doing that.” Norma’s cool and calm demeanor didn’t falter when she shared her reality with me. This small task puts her at a risk for injury and Norma acknowledges that she must change things about her everyday life to maintain her health. Time inevitably wears on all of us and for such a strong woman whose strength and independence is evident in every action, the loss of control is a challenge. Things aren’t the same as they use to be, but Norma doesn’t dwell on the negative: she’s never been one for that. Instead, as she told me, you gotta “Veer right and take flight.” That’s Norma. Hard working, unwavering, and determined in all she does, always has been that way. Much like her windows, Norma always lets in the light.
"This Is Norma"