Rich Abrahamson shares a tender moment with his mother in Boone, Iowa, in 2013. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

My mother saved me plenty of times.

When I was 4, she flipped me upside down and whacked me hard on the back, dislodging an ice cube that was stuck in my throat. I was choking and in trouble when Mom sprang into action — just like she’d done countless times while raising four kids and working alongside my father on the family farm in Iowa.

I’d seen my brother chew ice. He was seven years older than me and tall enough to reach the freezer portion of the refrigerator. It took a chair and the full reach of my little arm but I got my ice, and Mom’s saving grace.

When I was in high school, Mom, whose name was Phyllis, fielded a phone call from the school. It was the journalism teacher who served as advisor to the school newspaper and yearbook. She was unhappy with me. I was argumentative and disruptive.

Our small but mighty staff was in place, motivated and ready to start working on the semester’s first issue of “Bobcat Bylines.” I thought the teacher was dragging her feet. There were stories to write, photos to shoot and fun to have.

Had I pushed it too far? A three-day vacation from class would punish me. I’d have a desk parked in the hall outside the principal’s office while earning zeroes for completing my classwork.


Mom met me at the door when I got home that day. She told me about the call. I asked her what she thought about it, then held my breath. “I told her I agreed with you,” she told me.

A container is loaded with clippings of my stories and photos from that year. Mom cut the stuff out. She tucked the clippings away so I’d have them for reference. They’re stored along with the school report card that shows the D+ I earned in journalism that semester.

Mom gave to me sacrificially.

This Nikon F3 camera was purchased by Phyllis Abrahamson for her son Rich Abrahamson in 1986. The camera and the receipt from its purchase are kept by the younger Abrahamson as a reminder of his mother. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

In 1986 she bought me a Nikon F3 camera body, motor drive, lens, flash and battery packs. It was Nikon’s top-of-the-line camera. A real workhorse widely used by professional photojournalists in the field. I was a senior at Northwest Missouri State University and getting by with the Minolta camera I’d purchased for a photo class taken at a community college. Mom wrote a check for $1,416.91 to cover the cost.

Farmers in Iowa were suffering through financial hardships in 1986. Grain prices tumbled as farmers struggled to meet expenses and pay off bank loans for land purchases and for machinery. Some farmers were foreclosed on. David Peterson, a photographer with The Des Moines Register, won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting the farm crisis in Iowa.

As a farm kid I learned what hard work was. I didn’t always get what I wanted, but I always got what I needed. I kept the receipt and the camera to remind me of Mom’s investment in me.


The gear was with me when I returned to Northwest Missouri State to finish my senior year as a journalism major. The camera still smelled new. I was the envy of my colleagues at the school newspaper and yearbook. The Nikon with motor drive had a firing rate of six frames per second. That would give me the edge over the competition while covering sporting events or breaking news. Most of us were used to taking single frames then advancing the film manually with the thumb. These were the tools I needed to take my work to the next level. Mom understood.

I used the Nikon F3 on my first job at the Fort Morgan Times in Colorado in 1987. My parents were subscribers, receiving the newspaper through the mail back on the farm in Iowa.

Phyllis Abrahamson makes a quilt at her home in Boxholm, Iowa, in 2009. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Mom was my librarian, clipping every photo with my name beneath it. The paper ran hundreds of them in the three years I was there. She kept the material in Ziploc bags where after 35 years the newsprint looks like the day it came off the press.

My folks visited the Times, met my editor, toured the darkroom and got to see the giant rolls of newsprint and barrels of ink stored by the pressroom. While I worked Mom did my laundry and cooked.

She had a long reach. Her timing was heaven sent. In 2006 I got too close to the business end of a running snowblower. A storm left 6 inches of heavy, wet snow blanketing the neighborhood and providing me with some extra work to do on a day off.

The chute of the snowblower quickly plugged under the weight of the heavy snow as I fought to clear the driveway. Foolishly I reached to push away a piece of snow while the machine turned. In an instant the blades snagged my glove, lopping two fingers off my right hand.


The 911 operator told me to wrap my hand in a towel and hold it over my head until help arrived. I could hear sirens in the distance as the doorbell rang. It was the UPS driver who was trotting back to his truck after leaving a package at the door.

It was a box with a picture of sewing machines pasted on it. In frustration, I punted it out of the way. The package was for my neighbor, I thought. She sewed, not me.

Phyllis Abrahamson picks up ears of corn during harvest on the family farm in Boxholm, Iowa, in 1990. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The container was still there when I got back from the trauma center the next day. I checked the shipping label. It was from Iowa. Inside was a quilt made by Mom. She was a prolific quilt maker and enjoyed giving her work away when there was a need, or just because. She’d replaced her sewing machine and simply repurposed the box. The quilt was in transit days before my mishap.

Mom kept smiling as she was slowly overtaken by Alzheimer’s disease. At age 86 she left the farm with my father, who was 94. At the Eastern Star Home they’d have everything they’d need. I’d visit them and we’d keep each other entertained. The coffee flowed and laughter filled their room as we’d tell and retell our stories.

“This is our son, he’s a photojournalist,” she would proudly say as we walked together through the home’s dining room, passing staff and residents. I didn’t know how to respond so I just blushed.

I missed it when she stopped saying it. I always knew how she felt even as the disease slowly took her away. Her soft smile was always reassuring.

Rich Abrahamson is a photojournalist with the Morning Sentinel.

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