THIS (MOTH­ER­LESS) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - LAU­RIE FORTH

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.

this­life@theaus­tralian.com.au

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