It was pretty dull the other day at my parent’s place, both of them just seemed to want to sleep. Their matching living room recliners are getting a lot of use, there is a lot of reclining going on these days. Hopeful that one of them would wake up soon enough for us to have some kind of visit, I indulged in my not so guilty pleasure, which is digging into their old photo albums. Many of the photos I have seen countless times, and even have copies of my own. But once in a while I find something new, or, rather, old. This one had simply been slid in between pages and fell unceremoniously to the floor when I removed the album from a shelf in my parent’s bedroom. My Dad liked putting pictures in photo albums, but there was absolutely no thought or organization to the process. Therefore on the same page I will see a snapshot of my parents in the early nineties in Malibu next to a faded one of our family celebrating Christmas in 1971 next to an old black and white polaroid of my parents with friends in Toronto in 1962. It’s somewhat disorienting. In later albums he also put in duplicates just pages from each other and I can’t help but wonder if this was an early sign of future mental disintegration.
But I had never remembered seeing this particular picture of my mother, and I must confess I was instantly mesmerized. It’s her gaze. Here’s what I think I know about this photograph: it is from around 1950, judging by the fact that she looks to be around twenty, therefore before she started bleaching her dark blonde hair a much lighter, movie star hue. It was taken on a dock on a lake somewhere in Ontario, Canada, which is where she lived during the time. What I don’t know: the identity of the man next to her, and anything about their relationship. He may have been a stranger, but it seems as if they are sharing the dock. I also do not know the identity of the person taking the picture, who might possibly have been my father, but I somehow kind of doubt it. He was the world’s worst photographer, and often in his “compositions” an object would loom as large or larger than a person. Like this one for instance, taken of me around age three, where it seems like it is a picture of a lamp with a child next to it, not the other way around.
Also, pretty much any picture my dad took was either very posed (especially those taken before 1960) or candid, but not in a good way. He specialized in chopping people’s heads out of frame. This photo of my mom is kind of a candid portrait. I wish it was in better shape, because it feels so authentic, almost contemporary in certain ways. Other pictures from that era usually show my mom very coiffed and made up, but her wavy hair here is likely the result of a lake swim an hour before, and having dried naturally in the sun. I don’t think she is even wearing lipstick. My mother always had a self consciousness about her body which is lacking in this photo, she, in fact, looks a bit come hither both in her posture and the look in her eyes. So….?
At the tender age of twenty my mom had already been through so much. Growing up in a small, crowded, noisy and chaotic house with four siblings, a drunk, mostly unemployed father who hit her older brothers and occasionally her mother, watching those beloved brothers go off to war, (two sustained gunshot injuries, one was a POW for three years in a Japanese Prison Camp)…and worst of all, far worst of all, she was, for a period of time as a young girl, regularly sexually abused by her own alcoholic father. She graduated her all-girl, Catholic high school at 16 with honors and shortly afterwards went off to a town a few hours away to TEACH high school, desperate, at least that is my guess, to get out of the house. Somehow between that time and the one depicted in this photo she had, shockingly considering her background, decided to become an actress, and at this age was pursuing that goal, which, the way she always matter of factly told it, ended up coming fairly easily for her.
I didn’t expect anything, but I still showed my mother this picture. She didn’t seem to recognize herself, although she regularly does with other photographs. I can’t help but wonder, who was that young woman? In spite of the crease and the slight blurriness of the photo, I can’t help but be taken aback by how visceral this image is, how it feels to me, her daughter, as if she is looking out right at me across all those decades. Although, of course, the person she is looking at is the photographer, this mystery person, and he (unlikely she) has caught her in an unguarded moment. My guess is that she trusted him. My mom met my dad right around this age, but they didn’t start to date immediately, so, again, don’t think it is my dad. But it might have been. She didn’t have any serious boyfriends before him. Who took this picture? And does it even really matter?
My mother is still here but unless I can learn anything more about this image from one of their few remaining old friends or my Dad himself (sometimes he has these odd, very lucid moments), this mystery will die with her. This mystery, along with so many other mysteries. It can be said that children never really know their parents, but perhaps because her childhood was something she herself wanted to forget, it made it much harder for her own children, my brother and me, to understand it. I know so little of her life before she met my dad, before they, both fish out of water in different ways, grabbed on to each other and never let go. With the exception of my Dad’s sister in England, neither of my parents, for different reasons, seemed particularly connected to their original families, but their connection as a couple was so strong that it eclipsed not only their own origins but even us as a family. In other words, the two of them were bigger than the four of us. At least it has always felt that way to me.
So maybe this is why I want to solve this one, small mystery, the question posed by this photograph, because I will never solve the bigger one, the one that would tell me what really happened all those years ago, the year she was, as she said, around seven. Not so much the shocking, terrible facts of it, (I probably know all I want about that) but how she dealt with it, how she managed to function at all the rest of her life. Because for a very long time, about sixty years, she did function extremely well. Then for some reason (again, another mystery, although she said at the time it was the appearance in rapid succession of four little grand-daughters, being surrounded by these vulnerable female children) it all came back, either the memories themselves or the effort of living with them, and the depression and anxiety and alcohol tsunami washed over her, virtually taking her out to sea, away from us, pretty much never to return. When my mother first told us about her history, I mentioned it to an old friend, someone who had spent a lot of time in my house during high school, and he said, “That totally makes sense. She was always gracious and warm, but there was something missing, something hidden about your mom.”
You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. — Toni Morrison
Maybe my mom just couldn’t give up that shit, although she tried. And maybe there is a silver lining to her dementia, because I truly believe that she no longer has any recall of that time in her life, as well as the more recent periods when it all became too much for her to bear. When someone dies we say “rest in peace,” but in many ways she already is resting in peace. It just so happens that she is still alive while doing it.
I recently came across an article making the case that trauma can hide in your body on a cellular level, and can even be passed on to your children through your DNA, which might explain why I want to know more about her trauma, how it lived in her, because it might too live in me. I may, even, have passed it down to my own daughters. Although I think for the most part I inherited my mother’s naturally sunny, optimistic nature, I may have also inherited a certain skittishness, an adversity to risk, a general anxiety, too. Although it’s possible that I may just be a normal person in the year 2016, our great age of anxiety.
But staring at this photograph of my mother after a lake swim on a dock taken sixty five years ago, I can’t help but fantasize what she would answer if I could ask her, at the moment the picture was taken, a very young woman at the beginning of her adult life, what she was thinking. And, oh yeah, who that guy is behind her, and, probably more importantly, who is the one behind the camera.