Mary Beth Meehan

Teneka

Teneka

On the day of the senior prom in Newnan, Georgia, it was hot – unseasonably hot, I was told, for the South. I had been running around all afternoon when I received a text that the downtown was full of young men and women in their tuxes and gowns. As I headed there, I crossed the train tracks, where a girl in a long red dress was posing for a picture. I stopped at the city park, which was fluttering with teenagers as though they were butterflies, in brilliant raiment of magenta, azure, peach, gold …

I got out of the car and started photographing couples: girls holding balloons with elaborate hairdos piled on their heads, boys standing tall with lots of promise in their stiff clothes. Nothing I made felt good to me. Plus, it was so hot!

Just as I was about to leave I saw a woman using her cell phone to photograph a couple. Her blond-streaked hair was catching the light, and her jewelry sparkled from feet away. I approached her, asked if I could make a few pictures of her. She said yes and told me her name was Teneka, and that her two small daughters were with her. While the girls circled around us, we made a few frames. Then I left.

When I later looked at the photographs of Teneka, they – like so much of the work I’d done that day – disappointed me; they didn’t feel the way I had felt when I had first seen her. But then there was one photograph that I didn’t remember taking, in which the wind had lifted her hair, and she seemed for a moment to depart to another place. I decided to make a print, and to call her.

When I reached Teneka by phone, she told me that she was working – she goes to people’s homes, doing their hair and makeup – in a neighborhood north of town. She said she’d have a lunch break in the afternoon, and that we could meet then. She gave me an address, and when I arrived, she was sitting in her car, waiting for me.

Inside Teneka’s car, the air was cool and scented by the spicy wings she’d picked up for lunch. When I pulled out her portrait and gave it to her, she stayed silent for a second. Then she said, slowly, “Oh my God, oh my God,” and started to cry. Then I started to cry, and we just sat there for a while.

“It’s like I’m saying, ‘God, just take the wheel,’” she finally said. “‘Just give me the faith that I need, that strong independence. Just help me move on to my next destination.’”

Teneka told me all about her two daughters, ages 6 and 9, and her father, whom she’s caring for, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She told me that she loves having her own business, but that the strains and frustrations have grown increasingly trying. She said that when I met her she’d been photographing a client she’d been with all day.

“I’m a total believer, and I’ve been praying a lot,” Teneka continued. “Like, I don’t know, sometimes you wake up with a lot of demons, or a lot of weight on your back. And you know, you just gotta talk to yourself, and faith is what you need. I got to keep moving. I got to keep going, no matter what goes on in my life.”

I asked her what she thought her photograph said about her. “It says I’m humble,” she said.

“I’m God-fearing. I’m a hard worker. I love.”

Originally published June 22, 2017