THIS (MOTHERLESS) LIFE
WHAT is a photo: a moment frozen in time, the past captured forever? The minute that shutter fell, the image became history. Time moved on. We changed. And when we hold the photo years later, it is the proof that we were there, sharing that moment in time. But what if one of the people photographed is no longer here?
We save money, we save stuff, but we are so careless with memories. The photo is small, old, yellowing and cracked, as though someone, sometime in the past before it came into my possession, had folded the corners, perhaps to make it fit into a wallet.
I don’t remember how I came by it, or how long I have had it. It was definitely before I was 16, because that was when I started my first photo album.
Did your sister give it to me? Did I steal it from my father before I left home? Did he give it to me? It seems like I have always had it.
I am standing on a box, one foot balanced precariously along the edge. You stand behind, arms ready to catch me should I fall. I am smiling, looking pleased, perhaps confident that you are there, keeping me safe. It was a time before I learned about fear.
It is the only standing image I have of you. My head reaches your waist. I block you out. So I still do not know what you looked like. Were your legs thin like mine? Did you have small feet? Were you a short person? Was Ia tall baby? Was it a high box? Or was it the camera angle that hid so much of you from me?
Are you smiling? The image is so small and a shadow covers part of your face. I have only two other photos of you. You look so serious in both so I do not have your smile in my memory or in my hand. Nor do I have the sound of your voice, the memory of your touch or even your handwriting. How many of your gestures do I have? When I asked about you, what you liked, what made you happy, they told me you were ‘‘ nice’’, ‘‘ a quiet, agreeable girl’’. No one even remembered what colour you liked most.
I asked my questions too late, when some of your siblings had already gone and the others were vague, secretive and wondering why I wanted to dredge up the past.
It is almost 70 years since you left us. ‘‘ They will soon forget, children always forget,’’ was what I heard them say in the days after, when they were wondering what to do with a toddler wanting her mother and a hungry baby when there was no money to feed them.
But I didn’t forget you and no one took your place. I remember the presence of you.
But those precious details, ‘‘ that getting to know you’’ stuff that only years shared can provide, are lost to me.