“Remember Me”: A coming of age story of losing loved ones, from former Monitor photographer

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 09-05-2023 4:55 PM

On Mother’s Day in 2007, Rich St. Pierre crouched in the dirt as he dug a hole to plant a cherry tree. As a mound of earth grew beside him, his youngest son, EJ, sat with a shovel in hand, throwing the loose soil in the newfound backyard playground.

It’s a day Rich remembers well. Father and son planting two trees on the first Mother’s Day since EJ lost his mom, Carolynne. EJ was just 4 years old at the time, far too young to remember most days with his late mother.

But unlike Rich, who lost his own mother at 7, EJ today has a trove of memories of Carolynne.

In the most intimate time a family can experience – as Carolynne, a mom to three young kids and a maternity nurse at Concord Hospital battled terminal cancer – the St. Pierres opened their doors to the Concord Monitor. The intent was simple. They wanted to create a documentary of stories and photos for the kids to remember their mother. The resulting work earned the photographer Preston Gannaway the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 2008.

On the front page of the Monitor on Oct. 15, 2006, readers were introduced to the St. Pierre family through Gannaway’s lens and the words of reporter Chelsea Conaboy. The story starts with Carolynne traveling to New York for experimental cancer treatments.

The headline read, “Remember Me.”

Now that initial headline holds a new meaning. It’s the title of a newly published photo book by Gannaway that follows EJ’s life since his mother’s passing.

The publication of the book became the launching point for a community event on Sept. 13 at Red River Theatres. There, Gannaway and Conaboy will sit down with Rich and EJ to talk about the series, what it meant to them and life after their story was front-page news.

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The book is ultimately about memory and loss, but also one of a boy growing up in New Hampshire, with stills of fall foliage and other landscaping intertwined with St. Pierre portraits.

“The story follows them to a certain degree, but it’s also not exclusively about them,” said Gannaway. “I wanted to keep it loose enough that other people can bring their own experiences.”

Gannaway watched as EJ started shaving and prepared for his Boy Scouts review to be promoted to a Life Scout. And she was there when he left high school, with a green cap and gown and checkered mask – a sign of the times with graduation in 2020.

“Preston’s always been there, so I don’t really remember a time when she wasn’t there,” said EJ. “She’s always been pretty much just close as family.”

For Gannaway, the initial Monitor series serves as a prologue to the new book. It’s a story, and relationship with the St. Pierre family, that’s now transcended traditional journalistic boundaries.

And for Rich and EJ, the initial series – which Carolynne read and blessed – launched a lifelong friendship with “the girls,” as Rich calls Gannaway and Conaboy.

“It was just organic,” said Rich. “They kept up. We all kept up. It’s a village of people. It’s a community. And they kept up with us for the stories, but they also kept up just to check in. Preston’s never missed a birthday.”

Now, EJ’s a senior at the University of New Hampshire. He doesn’t have many memories of his mother, but he visits her graveside often when he’s home.

His days fishing in the pond by their house have translated into a degree studying marine biology. Some day, he hopes to run a fish farm. In the meantime, he sees himself working behind the scenes in an aquarium.

Part of that discovery, and exploration into adulthood, is the joy for Gannaway.

“For a long time, I just had no clue who this tiny person was going to become,” she said. “There’s just a really cool transformation that happens that I’m just along for the ride.”

And in a red-canvas-bound book, there are few photos of Carolynne, but EJ knows she’d like it that way. It was a story she knew she’d leave behind.

But with it comes decades of photos of her youngest child – from diapers to a high school diploma. It was impossible to know in the moment the original Monitor story would evolve into a book years later. But it’s one of those inexplicable things that have a simple answer from above.

“There are times where it does feel like she’s still around. I felt that she’s always been looking out for me,” he said. “There’s so much more to that story doesn’t end with the book. If there’s a second book, that’s great. If there’s not, that’s OK, too.

“But my life continues. And so does her memory.”

Follow the story

A community discussion between Gannaway, Conaboy and Rich and EJ St. Pierre will be Wednesday, Sept. 13, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Red River Theatres on South Main Street in Concord. There will be a book signing in the Red River Theatres lobby following the event.

Tickets are general admission and cost $10. Purchase tickets online only at redrivertheatres.org. Anyone who cannot afford the cost of a ticket can contact info@redrivertheatres.org. A limited number of tickets will be made available.

Proceeds from the tickets will be donated to the Concord Regional Technical Center’s nursing program.

This event is made possible with the support of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Concord Hospital, Granite VNA, the Granite State News Collaborative and Red River Theatres.

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