“The photo album on the art table is for you,” my seventy-eight year old mother calls from her bedroom, with a strength in her voice that surprises me. She has had knee replacement surgery a week earlier, and, despite her festered fears, is rebounding quickly. My mother, who never asks me for anything she needs, who never wants to impose on anyone, even her oldest daughter, has wanted me there. I recognized this, and so I patched up and packed up my car and hit the road for five hours, heading west.
In the adjacent room, I share the daybed with a few stuffed animals, and survey my surroundings. A bookshelf harbors hardcovers she read in the 1940s, once-contemporary romances like Green Mansions and Rebecca, which suddenly yield to inspirational books based on love of God and love of dogs. Art books also abound. Meanwhile, Jodi Picoult is sharing her recuperative hours, carried in a pale blue fabric pouch that is attached to her walker.
The corner of her art table could almost poke out my eye from where I lie. Tightly-squeezed furniture and close-to-overlapping wall art cocoons the creative energy that flows routinely through this room. Here is where my mother shakes off the mini-dramas of family matters, the pressing concerns of her world. Here is where my mother becomes “Shirley”: pastel painter, seamstress, reader, rocking chair meditator, and photo album archivist.
And so, I pick it up. It has an authoritative weight and presence: a maroon leather scrapbook with gold script, bound with a knotted silk cord threaded through bakelite grommets. I lift the cover. The black paper of the pages is worn and soft at the fraying edges, from frequent turning, or neglect, or both.
She had lined up the snapshots evenly and methodically, six to a page. The notched paper corners holding them in place are coming loose; over a half century has passed since she moistened and adhered them, pressing down those future memories with pride and firm finesse.
I gingerly remove and turn over the first photo. In neat fountain pen script is written:
Shirley, Bob, & Sheri
Aug. 30, 1953
I am three months old. My mother had just turned twenty-two ten days before. She shares me with my father by supporting my tiny sleeping body from beneath, while his huge hand carefully and protectively rests over me. The gesture resembles a sort of dual shield, designed to convey a pact of two new, loving parents. There is an assurance and maturity captured in this photograph that belies their incredible youth. They are ready for their life together.
This fact is also reflected in their clothing. My mother is wearing a print dress with a small, white Peter Pan collar and matching cap sleeve cuffs. Her hair is cropped into a short, neatly tapered pageboy exposing pearl clip-on earrings. My father sports a boxy suit and flashy tie, all topped with a buzz cut. They are on their way to church. “Sunday Best” happens every week.
I continue to turn pages. Black and white snapshots with sharp deckled edges document my first smiles, my first encounters with puppies, bunnies, box turtles, cake icing, toys. I am held aloft by uncles and aunts, anticipating their own little bundles of joy, or in laps by great-grandparents, still garbed in depression-era dowdiness, but their faces aglow: A baby is in the family! I am propped with stuffed giraffes and pandas, dolls and hobby horses. Too young for more than a tooth in my mouth, I am seated at a table facing an army of giant chocolate Easter bunnies. I am the focus of every family gathering, the center of a circumference of love as wide and as perfect as the hem of my holiday dress’s dirndl skirt. Which, of course, my mother has sewn.
Post-WW2 was an era of hope and prosperity, despite the creeping paranoia of the Cold War. High school sweethearts married before their prom corsages had even wilted. Engines were revved; there was an American Dream to pursue!
My father followed the career path of his father, to a secure job with the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company. Three generations lived together in a modest house on Lucknow Road. Meanwhile, my father tackled the next part of the dream.
I continue turning pages. I am two, or three, sitting on cinderblock steps leading up to a newly installed door. Or, I toddle around, picking flowering weeds and patting the head of our collie puppy. I entertain myself in a bouncy seat in the middle of what looks like a moonscape, but it is our yard-to-be. I wear corduroy overalls, hand-knit sweaters with matching booties, even berets. I am pre-Baby Gap chic, in the middle of our dream home construction site. Out of camera range, my father and his father slather cement on bricks, and raise the rafters frame by frame. My mother is inside loading her new clothes washer.
I stop at another photo. My father and I are perched high up on a cinderblock wall. He is taking a break, showing me the view from the picture window that will brighten our mid-century modern sunken living room. It will face the small, local airport, and he can’t wait to show me the lights of the airplanes landing. Shirtless and tan, my father is muscular as Stanley Kowalski. But his omnipresent mischievous smile offers no threat to his Stella, nor any other living being. His arms, protective and casual, drape around my tiny shoulders.
I can still smell the cement, and almost remember the feel of his large hand around mine as I grasp the trowel and we spread, together, the mortar over the brick. We are building this together.
The inch-thick album ends soon, after the birth of my sister. After focusing on me for four years, the camera stops. My father is electrocuted on one of the utility poles he services, in a nearby town just up the river. The photo makes the front page of the Harrisburg Patriot. It does not make it into my mother’s photo album.
So, I close the book. It is a document of a happy, hopeful time, and a very much loved little girl. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to her. I think I can safely say she is okay.