I finally found my anger, and it is red hot. I’m not angry that my mother died, I’m not angry that her life was cut short… I’m not even angry that it was a freak accident with no one to blame. I’m angry that with very few exceptions, my mother would not allow herself to be photographed. She would go out of her way to avoid someone capturing her, and as a result, my memories of her during my childhood are quite limited. Actually, my memories of her are limited all the way around. Take this one, for instance. My mom and Forbes had come to visit Dana & me in Portland, and we took them to the winery, Anne Amie, where we had a membership. Every picture I took is just like this one, all landscape and no mother. As Dana and I sat outside with them, introducing Forbes to our favorite outdoor pours (my mom wasn’t a drinker, but she at least took a sip of Forbes’ without spitting it out), we tried asking for a photo, surreptitiously trying to take a selfie, awkwardly positioning ourselves so that they wouldn’t know they were being photographed, etc. Nothing worked. My mother was a hawk and caught us every time. What I wouldn’t give for the chance to go back to that day and say, “damn it, Mom. You’re going to die someday and if you don’t stop saying ‘I don’t look good’ for every single one my head is going to explode.” What person ever plans that far in advance? Why wouldn’t she always be around in 3D? What mother or father consciously thinks about the fact that even if they look like crap in the moment, every picture taken is going to be treasured by their children….. Every. Single. One. Because the thing is, the only person that really thinks they look like crap is them, because they look at it with their own critical eyes, picking out flaws no one else would notice.
I don’t remember what year the picture at Anne Amie was taken, but my mother did not change her stance on photographs one bit from that day. A few months after I moved to Silver Spring, she came to visit, and I don’t have any pictures of her then, either. No selfies on the Metro, no cringe-and-laugh photos of us stuffing our faces at McDonald’s, no standing in front of The White House together. All of the pictures I got on that trip were the same content as the winery… just touristy scenery without her beautiful face. Now, the Smithsonian castle is great and all, but I just have to look in my mind’s eye to remember what she looked like when we were there, and over time, that memory will fade or get smothered into another one so that the pure essence of what it was like to have my mother visit will be lost to history. I am trying my best to record everything I can possibly remember in terms of words, but I won’t ever be able to take a fully-functioning memory, still or moving, and upload it here. Perhaps someone is working on the technology, but it won’t exist in my lifetime. Plus, as I get older, it’s harder and harder to remember what she looked like when I was a child, because there are a few that still exist, but not many. She always thought she was too fat, even when she was tiny…. or perhaps it wasn’t that she felt fat at all, it was just a good excuse to get people to leave her alone about taking pictures at all.
My mother didn’t even want to be in this photo, a beautiful mommy and me portrait taken when I was three or four (hard to tell because I was small for my age, born a preemie). The reason she agreed to be in it was that I was terrified of men with mustaches, and the photographer wore one. I wouldn’t stop crying and agree to have the photo made unless my mother was in the picture with me. So, this total accident of a portrait is my absolute favorite, because I don’t have many others, for two reasons. The first is that even if it was my birthday or Christmas, my mother still hated having her photo taken. The second is that my house burned down when I was 11, so even if she’d posed for a ton of them, I wouldn’t have them, anyway. My grandparents tried to fill in the gaps, but of course, they didn’t have copies of everything, and the one box that actually “survived” the fire smelled like smoke and had weird color runs across them, some stuck together because of the heat. As an aside, one of the things they don’t tell you about a house fire is that even if something doesn’t burn, it will smell like a burning house for all eternity. We didn’t have a scanner when I was in sixth grade, then hideously expensive, so we basically chucked out most of our pictures because only digitizing them would have taken away the smell.
This is basically the last photo to which I remember my mother agreeing. I don’t know how my dad talked her into it, but it’s priceless. I am excited beyond belief because “I’m” about to have a baby. Because Lindsay was born in June and I turned six the next September, I was old enough to take care of her from day one. I changed diapers, I fed her bottles, I read her stories, I watched her while she was sleeping….. basically everything you’d want a big sister to do until Lindsay was old enough to be annoying. I know she won’t mind me saying so. I’m sure I was a royal pain in her ass, too. In that moment, all you can see is my utter joy, but I also remember feeling bittersweet… so excited about this new chapter in my life, and lamenting the fact that my minutes as an only child were numbered and falling fast. It wasn’t until we brought Lindsay home that I realized being an only child wasn’t really my cup of tea (which reminds me of a “Lindsayism…” that coffee is not my cup of tea… which is only funny because now her Starbucks budget is practically a car payment). There were lots of things I attended with my parents in which there were no other children… probably why I have a large vocabulary, but it was still boring. What child likes to sit in a nursery by themselves during a meeting? I could read by the time I was three and a half or four, so I always had the company of books. But having a sister to
torture play with was so much better. She was, and still is, funnier than I am. Well, technically, we’re both funny, but I have a short fuse for silly. Lindsay has no such mechanism. While I am dry-witted and cynical, Lindsay has a rubber face. While my jokes might be clever and/or tar black, Lindsay will make tears run down your face as you struggle to breathe. So, pitying myself that I wasn’t my parents’ one and only lasted about as long as a Verizon commercial.
As much as you might think this entry is for me in terms of remembrance, it’s also for you…. a cautionary tale to never tell your children that you’re feeling fat, or too tired, or you haven’t brushed your teeth today, or whatever it is that is keeping you from taking a damn picture. It’s something I have taken in for myself, as well. I used to be very self-conscious about photos, too, and after my mother died, it didn’t matter what state I was in. Having the memory was more important to me than anything else. There are pictures of me with my eyebrows as bushy as a cartoon character, all my wrinkles showing, my hair a mess, and everything else in between (or all of the above, as the case may be). It was easy. I stopped asking to look at the pictures after they were taken and demanding another one, treating a digital camera like an analog with no do-overs, because I didn’t want to become obsessed with getting exactly the right shot before it was shown to others.
No one cares. They’re just glad to have a picture of you at all, especially when you are taken from them unexpectedly and those supposedly imperfect pictures are all they have left.