My mother was a life-long keeper of photo albums.
She had several of them saved from her youth
filled with black and white faded to yellowy-grey
family photos of long-dead relatives
posed around a new grave or
an infant in a tiny coffin,
in horse-drawn buggies on the way to church,
my grandmother in the chicken yard.
The albums had faded brown covers,
crumbling black paper pages,
photos held in place with paste-on corners.
As a child I spent many hours looking at them,
asking who the faces were. Some she could recall;
many were lost to her.
There was one photo, taken in 1957,
according to the date printed on the edge of the photo,
which seemed odd to me, a puzzle.
In it I was a child of twelve,
dressed in what must have been
a borrowed boy’s suit and tie.
I stood next to my mother
on the front porch of our little house in Dallas.
The image was taken looking slightly upwards towards us
(the photographer was on the bottom step),
perspective exaggerating our facial features.
It occurred to me when I was older
that there was a paradox in the photo:
I was smiling and squinting into the sun;
my mother’s shoulders were stooped,
her face twisted in something internal
that I couldn’t see.
Perhaps it was the growing awareness
of my own mortality
that led me not long ago to look again,
to decode the message:
the photo was taken the day of my father’s funeral.
My mother was compressed by the agony of my father’s death,
a weight and loss almost impossible for her to bear.
But what was happening with the child me?
I suppose it could be called denial,
but I had moved into the now-familiar space of not-knowing.
Perhaps this blankness contributed
to my taking so many years to understand.
Whatever the cause, I wasn’t there;
my mother was too much there.