Beyond flesh and bone, I think that we are made of memory, and memory is the vault that contains the stories that shape our identities. So what can be told about my mother, the daughter of a locomotive engineer and the granddaughter of a shepherd, the daughter of a mother who fed sandwiches to wandering men during the Depression? She saw them sit on their back stoop to eat, looking worn out, some dressed in shabby coveralls. How was she a product of the experiences and stories of those two men and that woman? My brother and sisters and I, her children, have lost the stories that go with these three experiences, and that captures only the surface of what is forever gone. For example, I wonder about another fragment of her life: what did she think about when she traveled by bus each week to Lebanon to make sure her older sisters were taking care of themselves. What did she see? Who did she meet? The three of them gathered around their little table in the kitchen on the top floor of a three story walk-up. What did they talk about? What went on inside her sisters’ hearts and minds? What happened to all those stories that led them to being unmarried and alone? Why did we never ask my mother?
In his second memoir, A Step from Death, Larry Woiwode mentions a conversation with William Maxwell, his editor, who said that “when you explain away one mystery, you make room for another (222).” The lament I offer up is for all her stories that have died out in time and for all the mysteries that will never be solved.
Even the visual evidence of family photographs which offer a setting, recognizable figures, and events caught within definable periods of time may withhold more than they decipher. Mysteries may be implicit in their two-dimensional silences. Or as Richard Avedon wrote: “My photographs don’t go below the surface. They’re readings of the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. They’re full of clues.” *
I saw this photo for the first time about a month ago; I have not been able to let it go.
This is a First Holy Communion picture, taken in the spring of 1957; my older sister, Annette, was 7, my mother, 40. She had borne 5 children. What does the surface suggest? What clues present themselves in the black and white image of my mother and her young daughter?
What do my mother’s bearing and demeanor give away? Our faces present a code with every expression. Even one arranged to look blank and impersonal reveals the effort to disguise the feelings behind the face. We look and at least see the design of a specific mask. What is moving behind her face?
It is thinner than normal, closer to gaunt than full and starkly drawn by a large, black, fashionable spring hat. My cousin Jane said that she looked like a Paris model of the period. I thought exactly the same. She stands next to her daughter, coat and dress touching, yet her hands are in her pockets, her neck and head tilted slightly away. She is looking at whoever is taking the photo, presumably my father. No hand on Annette’s shoulder. No smile for the camera to signify her happiness for the occasion. She looks as if she is alone with her husband who is wielding the camera.
Unsmiling is too blunt a word to use to describe her expression — the angle of her head, the framed effect of the hat, her thin face, the almond-shaped eyes — she looks alluring, right on the threshold of a dark glamor. But the distancing effect is strange for such a traditional Catholic photo. She seems posed, but my mother was always too outward focused to strike such a vain pose, but still, the viewer’s eye goes to my mother, not to my sister, whose whole attitude seems perfectly self-contained for the purpose of the photo.
What was my mother feeling?
I have to remind myself that I am a son, not a novelist. I want to know what the cues within the photo suggest, but my mother can no longer remember and my father is dead, and even more importantly, why should I or anyone else deserve to know? Skilled novelists conceive the inner lives of their characters. They gain life through their imaginative, psychologically acute understandings of human beings. Novelists claim the obligation to look within and the duty to tell the truth about what they discover, but what rights of possession and entitlement do sons and daughters hold to the inner lives of their parents, to their secret rivers that flowed deep under the luminous surfaces of their poignant bodies?
I want to know, and I regret every day that all the story-lights that could have led me to understanding have flared out. Instead, I push the counter that makes the photo larger, that brings my mother’s face closer, that shows me the enigmatic line of her mouth. What was she thinking? What did she know?