Bargell: From Saturday Night Live to the Brown Sister: 40 years and counting (column) |

Bargell: From Saturday Night Live to the Brown Sister: 40 years and counting (column)

An unusual art exhibit is making its rounds on the Internet, and simultaneously is being displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Portraits of the four Brown sisters, black-and-white still shots that span four decades, are available online, and in the recently released book “Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters. Forty Years.” As far as I know the Brown girls are four “ordinary” sisters. The details of what they lived through, individually and collectively, during each of the 40 years they were photographed remains mysterious. As one online commentator noted, “If we knew anything about them, they’d be less like us. So, they are us.” The pictorial is extraordinary for anyone who’s been around 40 or so years because it elicits a reflection on life and aging. Maybe because it’s life in time-lapse photography, or maybe it’s just because we wonder why the girls — like Mona Lisa — aren’t smiling. In either case, the evidence of years passing is raw and thought provoking.

The inaugural picture, circa 1975, initially caught my eye because the shot could have been taken outside of my high school. The small alligator emblem on one of the girl’s shirts stirred a memory of my mom shaking her head, wondering why on earth anyone would pay more than $20 for a T-shirt. Clearly, she didn’t understand the significance of the Lacoste emblem to a 15-year-old in 1975. Then again, mom didn’t understand much of anything 40 years ago, back when I was 15. The 40-year mark came up again unexpectedly later in the same week when we laughed out loud at four decades of slightly skewed American history captured by the Saturday Night Live cast in the show’s 40th anniversary special. While I questioned my judgment just a bit in letting the girls watch with us, unearthing 40 years of Americana in a single evening is a rarity. I recalled, too, that 40 years ago my folks weren’t so fond of letting me stay up late to watch SNL. Their concern only fueled my determination to stay awake longer than they did. If the intervening decades have taught me anything, it’s that staying up longer than mom and dad is not such a difficult feat for a 15-year-old.

The Brown sisters’ march through time, and the SNL anniversary show, took on a more personal meaning when it occurred to me that the time span that separates the first shot from the most recent Brown picture, or the SNL premier (George Carlin hosting) from the recent tribute is the same expanse of time that separates me from our oldest daughter. Any thought I harbored that high school was just yesterday is more delusional than factual when considered against the backdrop of the Brown sisters, or even Chevy Chase, whose appearance was a visceral reminder that 40 years is a good long time. The Lacoste alligator reminded me that it’s probably OK that the girls sometimes think I don’t understand much of anything. I really do wonder at times why anyone would pay $100 for a pair of tennis shoes. It’s all right, too, I suppose that teenagers sometimes just want to stay up late. After all, they are much better at it than we are.

What I can’t shake from my teenage decade was the fact that mom always worried about me, even though I was all grown up. It also seemed like she was just a bit too eager to listen, especially when I didn’t want to talk so much. Time has reversed roles on me. One commentator’s reflection on the Brown exhibit was helpful in accepting this turn of events. “What beautiful women. I feel better now. Time happens to us all; if we are lucky, we are left with wisdom and dignity.” She went on to note “Nevertheless, I hate watching my face fall in my lap.” At its best, time allows us to gain wisdom and dignity, including acceptance that there are some things as parents we just don’t understand. I’ll be content instead worrying too much, and trying a bit too hard to listen. And we’ll take a few pictures along the way, just in case we decide to have our own anniversary show someday.

Cindy Bargell is an attorney and a mom who lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters. She welcomes your comments at

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