Photograph

The big wad of chewing gum and the bright orange pillow jump out at me every time. There she is-my 16-year old mother with her mouth open in a wide guffaw, sitting between her two grandmothers wearing the cameo necklace her daddy gave her on her 16th birthday. They are sitting on the couch in my mother’s childhood home, the round   pillow behind my mother’s head, framing her face like a bright orange starburst candy.

The white chewing gum is discernible from her teeth because her tiny mouth is open so wide the gum looks like a cheerful ghost erupting from the depths of her hearty laugh.   She always said this was her favorite picture of herself.

I wonder if it’s because she was laughing so heartily. I wonder if she remembers the joke. As much as she admired the photograph, I can’t remember whether she could recall why they were laughing. Her grandmothers, particularly her dad’s mother, grew up in a much less carefree time, a time when there were back-breaking chores to be done, children to look after, men to feed, gardens to tend. But in this photograph, they are laughing. Gone are the traces of the hard lives they’d led, the photographer capturing a lighthearted moment with their granddaughter. I wonder who took the picture.

She must have been so carefree and happy, my mom, the kind of joyful abandon only youth knows. A joy unburdened with the grown-up knowledge that no, her mother was not normal, before a college career cut short by her father’s illness, before a marriage ended from selfishness and infidelity, before the burden of raising two children in poverty as a single parent, before the first heart attack at 42, and the three more and surgery to come before a death from heart failure at 58. I imagine she looked back at that photo with a sense of the bittersweet, not wishing things different in case she wouldn’t have us, but maybe wondering what if…

My 4-year old daughter looks at the pictures of her Grandsan adorning the walls of our house. She knows that she is named after her and I pray the similarity doesn’t end there. Even through all the challenges my mother encountered, she always had laughter. She always had joy and humor. I hope my children inherit that ability to laugh at themselves, at others, at life. It’s a gift I think that carried my mother on this Earth longer that she was meant to be here. In fact, if my children witness someone fall or trip or otherwise injure themselves and have to ask through a veil of tears of laughter whether that person is OK, I’ll consider my parenting job a success.

It’s also important to me that my children understand their roots. I want them to understand what it means to grow up poor in Appalachia, to understand what life was like for the uneducated, to know what it means to farm the land, to repair engines as a mechanic, to be a mother, a factory worker, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, a poet. I rely on photographs, and the stories that go with them, to familiarize my kids with their family.

It’s important to me that my children know the people in these old photographs are our family. It’s important to me that my children know we have family all over the country right now.   It’s why we make a trip to Ashland every couple of months and why we journey to Denver once a year. Our aunts, uncles, brothers, and cousins are our village; they know why we are the way we are even when it isn’t apparent to us, why we love animals, why we’re angry, why we have a super-sized sense of justice, and why we have sassy mouths.

I never sat on the couch or rested my head on the pillow in the picture, but the room I knew very well.   My Nanny’s living room hosted birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, Thanksgiving dinners, and most importantly to my pre-teen self, the TV with cable that I had unlimited access to during sleepovers.

I know my mother had fond memories of that house, but hers was not a blissful childhood. Valium and a borderline, or maybe not so much, personality disorder infused my grandmother with a wicked tongue, the need for control, and a demeaning tone toward her two daughters.

But as always, my mother had her laughter and her family. And she knew the kind of mother she wasn’t going to be-hers. This determination to be the antithesis of her mother allowed my brother and I to flourish under her tough, but explore-the-world-and-make-your-own-discoveries-and-mistakes, attitude. We did plenty of both, discovering and mistake-making, but we never doubted she had our back no matter what we did.

My mother’s mother shaped who she was and my mother shaped me. In the same vein I’m shaping my daughter and my great-grandmother shaped my Nanny. We are the products of our family for better or worse.

I think my mom was proud of the woman I became. I think she’s somewhere in Heaven right now bragging to God and anyone who will listen about her intelligent, beautiful, funny granddaughter and her handsome, athletic, wily grandson. If I have anything to do with it, my kids will grow up knowing the strength and humor of their Grandsan. That she isn’t here to see them is still something God and I wrestle with.

I like to think my mom and her grandmothers are laughing at something so ridiculous and trivial that they wouldn’t be able to recall the insanity now if I could poll the three of them.

Someone get the camera and the chewing gum.

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