photographic evidence

scrolled-wood rocker arm

Digging into the box of old family photographs, I lift each piece gingerly from the soil, as from some stumbled-upon archeological site of great import, where one unexpectedly-  and then quite expectantly -discovers the never-before-known and previously unseen that unravels the tightly held knot. With great care, I brush the dust aside, exposing details easily missed at first glance. Here in my hand, I gently hold the image of the object used in the annual ritual, the circular ridged-glass plate that bore the celebratory cake. Magnified now, I note the placemat upon which it rests, its edge barely hinting at the wisp of a fairy wing in shades of gray, though I know its color instantly some fifty years later. It is the palest of pink and smells of plastic and damp dish cloths and lives in the metal drawer -the one that opens with a squeal and closes with a soft thump- behind the 2 year old girl in the photograph. Glancing up from the photograph, my gaze falls on the Tinkerbell ornament hanging from the upper bough, a gift from my granddaughter, hand selected by her several years ago when she was two.

happy birthday vicki

Perhaps there is some truth after all to this resurrection of the body, for it is in my body that these memories come back to life, not in thought nor even these beloved words of mine, but in smell, in sound, in remembered touch.  Here is my grandmother, before I was born, seated in my parent’s first apartment, cradling my infant sister, the fabric of her dress brushing lightly the black and white speckled vinyl of the chair’s back. My own hand recalls the smooth curve of cool metal, the slender spindles, of the arm of that chair, which took up residence some years later beneath a rotary wall telephone. My fingers feel their fit in the holes of that phone, the tension of the dial; the ridge of the earpiece remembers the skin of my cheek near my ear.

grandma and cindy

Here we are, my sisters, my brother and I lined up on my grandmothers gray trapezoid sofa, the one with sculptured velvet upholstery, and a memory is caressed, teased up through my legs as they graze its odd texture, soft and scratchy at once. The gray floral carpet, an oval runner, moves from photo to photo – here next to a sofa I don’t recognize, there in front of a door that I do – as my toes play in its fringe. The bottom edge of that window-paned door suggests the spring-loaded rod that held the curtain fast, evoking the dust mites that danced in the sunlight, which its sheerness allowed to pass through in those days before the solid blond-wooded replacement door permitted but a peep.

Here, my fingers trace the scrolled wood of the overstuffed rocker’s handle, its brass upholstery pins remembering the changes each decade wrought. There, my eyes delve into the imaginary worlds I created in the wallpaper’s pastoral scenes. Here, my hands feel the final firm push of the folding closet door’s closure; there, my ears hear the creak and magnetic latch of the cool metal cabinet’s. Rounding the corner, behind the long curtain, my memory climbs the metal trimmed stairs feeling the heat hit my face, my nose breathing in a whiff of hot cardboard. My legs recall the rise and the fall.

Back into the soil my hands plunge, pulling forth an ancient album, prehistoric in the scope of my time, with remnants of a mother I never knew, teasing and twinkling. (Now I understand what the old ones mean when they say, ‘Her face lit up’!) I am insatiable, like someone starved, devouring greedily image upon image of my mother’s joy, though here there is no visceral memory aroused, no sounds nor aromas, no story nor song, nothing to taste or to touch, no color evoked. Yet, in these early black-and-whites I can see she was vibrant, can read in her face the vitality of her youth. In the decade that followed, as color began gradually to creep into those timeworn photographs it seeped from my mother’s face. By the time of that 2 year-old’s birth, she is no longer smiling. Here she is staring blankly, the door closed with but a peephole to let in the light.

She sits directly across from me in this family circle around which we pass the archeological treasures. On the eve of my 53rd birthday, I am seated at 6, she at 12. Staring blankly still, I wonder what inner landscape she is inhabiting. We try to engage her, call her forth to tell us the stories, but she has gone somewhere else, as always.

My sisters and brother seem to excuse it because of the crowd, too difficult to focus eyes and ears with so much color and sound. They say that she is much better one on one, but this is the mother I have always known. The little girl in me still believes she is responsible for her mother’s sorrow, that my presence here releases some long-held memory in her body, like fingering the photographed scroll of an armchair and feeling the final firm thunk of a closet door’s shut.

I want to tell her I understand. Motherhood is hard, as often unimaginably draining, numbing and isolating as it is wonderfully fulfilling, enlivening and deeply connective. I have for years tried to access this part of her that hides, held my hand out like a beggar at times.

But now I hold in my hands the evidence of my mother’s free spirit, a hint of what lay tucked away on that closet shelf, and somehow it brings me delight to know that its there, awaiting perhaps the palest of blue of my father’s eyes or the scent of my grandmother’s peonies to bring it back to life

dad with grandmas peonies  1955


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carolyn
    Jan 08, 2015 @ 14:34:44

    Vicki, I believe with you that memories live in our bodies. They are thus part of who we are and it seems so important to get to know them, understand and relate to them. I’m glad you had this opportunity on your birthday.



  2. Trackback: too much beauty to bear | Emmaatlast's Weblog

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