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Life and Death Matters: Mary

Heather Pillar | Massachusetts, United States

After working 2 jobs and being a young mother of 2, Mary’s marriage broke down and she was evicted.
Mary completed a six month rehab center to address her drug addiction. She missed her 2 children.

“I was a good mother until I started doing cocaine on a regular basis.”

According to Ronald Reagan, ‘welfare queens’ were what was wrong with America. Mainstream media outlets inaccurately portrayed welfare recipients as minorities with six children. I set out to explore and more accurately portray welfare recipients- primarily white single mothers (by the numbers - not percentage) and their children.<>

Mary was near my age and we became friendly. She moved back to Haverhill,Massachusetts with her extended family and I photographed her for 7 years until I moved overseas as an international teacher. When I left, Mary was in a good place, recently graduated with a degree and a job. She had her 2 children back and they were growing up. We kept in touch through social media as she eventually moved to New Hampshire and I moved around the world. In 2014, I visited her and she had good and bad news: she was getting married and she had breast cancer. Mary died in June 2019 and I think of her often.<>

Facing my fears of life and death - that’s what I was doing in the 1990’s with my camera. Inspired by photojournalism and encouraged by my editorial control in smaller publications, I frequently assigned myself projects that intrigued me.<>


I was lucky that two people let me explore their lives when I was at a turning point in my own life. Mary and Morrie were caring collaborators while I fuddled around with camera settings, asked questions and observed their families, friends and support systems - or lack thereof.<>


I identified with Mary, a single-mother navigating the welfare system. She was building her life again after completing a drug rehabilitation program. Mary was two years older than me and her desire to be working and independent, a good mother, and also have an equal partner in life was what I wanted too. I knew that I did not want to be a single mother. Would I regret not having children?<>


As I was questioning if parenthood was in my future, my professor, Maury Stein at Brandeis University introduced me to his friend and colleague, Morrie Schwartz. Morrie was wonderfully open about his philosophy on living and dying as chronicled in four Nightline shows and in the book, Tuesdays with Morrie.<>


“Death ends a life, not a relationship” was one of Morrie’s aphorisms that has stuck with me. He enjoyed the idea of people coming to visit his grave on a peaceful hill overlooking a pond - “You talk and I’ll listen.” We all want someone to listen, to be seen and heard. I loved that Morrie thought of this even in death.<>


I left the USA in 1997 and Mary was in a good place. Through many obstacles, she earned a degree, secured a job and her children were well. I also earned my degree, secured teaching jobs in 7 countries and my family was well.<>


I repatriated in 2020 due to COVID and my family’s needs with the fear of death and unfinished business on my mind. I visited Mary, who died of breast cancer in 2018. I talked - and it helped to know she was listening.<>

Heather Pillar


+1 508-292-4048 (also on What's App)


Heather Pillar, photographer and teacher, has lived, taught and photographed in seven countries over four continents during the past 25 years. Known for her series, Life and Death Matters: Morrie made during the last six months of beloved Brandeis professor, Morrie Schwartz’s life. Her personal and collaborative photographic projects reveal her ongoing interest in women, girls and aging. <>

Pillar’s photographs have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines including People Magazine, Detroit Free Press, USA Today, books, Tuesdays with Morrie and Morrie: In His Own Words, and appeared online �" Next Avenue (AARP) and on PBS’s Inside E Street.<>

Pillar has collaborated with two other educators to self-publish ‘Asha: means Hope’ profiling Bangladeshi girls for the ABC Charity School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The book raised funds and helped secure a building for the school that would not flood. In another collaboration, she photographed the cover and wrote a story for Mama Dar, that resulted in funds for a battered women’s shelter in Tanzania.<>

Pillar now splits her time between Massachusetts and Lagos, Nigeria.<>

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