Not this photo

The photo slipped from among a pile of papers on my mother’s bed side table. Well-thumbed papers, creased with age and use. It weighed more heavily than the other sheets as if it was waiting to be found.

My mother had a way of hiding things from view when they created an image unacceptable to her. There were holy pictures amongst the papers and a picture of the Blessed Virgin, her hands clasped in prayer, eyes heavenward. 

In the photo, the young woman who stands in the centre has eyes similarly elevated, though there is not the look of inspiration in them, nor one of fear or apprehension, as if she is a Hollywood starlet waiting for the assault of some monster about to descend.

Instead of looking upwards like the Blessed Virgin, this young woman, whom I recognised as an earlier incarnation of my mother, pulls back her shoulders, tense, as if she is avoiding the approach of actual danger.

Her hair is tousled as though she has been roughed about, maybe in the wind, and her skirt, in a floral summer cotton, is twisted around her waist, as if it is too loose and refuses to settle on her hips. 

My mother in her early years, a photo taken in a studio, by the look of the backdrop, one of those restrained, constrained ones, given the technology of the era, the 1940s, but the photo holds movement as if my mother is about to slip out from the frame if only she could. 

I have only ever seen my mother look like this at times when my father, drunk, bore down on her, ready to slap or pull her hair for some perception on his part that she had offended him. She had stirred up his rage yet again because she was not the woman she was meant to be. 

Whoever this woman was, she did not exist.

No person can exist as the willing servant of another and ask nothing in return. Blind obedience to a master who forces you into meeting his every demand, while insulting you as though you’re enjoying it. Rather as sex workers are sometimes required to pose delight. At least they get paid for it.

The photo was an original, but is still in good condition as if few eyes have peered at it, few thumbs smeared its surface. As if it had lain hidden in a box somewhere in the dark where no one could interrogate my mother on where she was when this photograph was taken.

As if it was a precursor of what was to come, only my mother did not know it then.

If I had seen this photograph while she lived and had asked her what was happening, I doubt she’d have told. She had a way of focussing only on the good stuff, the bright and shiny. She did not want any of us to know the truth of her fears from her young squeaky-clean past that might not have been as pure as she might once have wanted us to believe.

My mother was not the Blessed Virgin. 

Not this photo.

How to frame an image

Do you know what’s worse than seeing your mother when you look in the mirror? 

Seeing your father. 

That’s what happens when I leave my hair soaked in conditioner and slicked back like a seal. Only my hair is not black like a seal’s any more than my father’s hair was black. His moved from fair to grey. Mine also began fair. Now it’s anything but. 

In his old age my father took to letting his hair grow long and wild, as young folks did in the sixties and seventies. He let it grow long, he said, in protest against all those years when he was forced to trot into the city in a suit and tie. 

He wore his hair long and Jesus-like as a mark of freedom, once he had given up the alcohol that swallowed most of his child-rearing days. Long flowing hair that left him looking like an ageing hippie. A Fritz Perls look-a-like. A man who tried to make up for his lost years by building doll houses for his granddaughters, and selecting wood off-cuts to create picture frames.

 He once gave me a framed rooster in browns and red. He took the image from a magazine, a shiny print of someone else’s painting that looked sad, when exposed years later, after the frame fell apart.

In the days of doll houses and picture frames, my father turned back to religion. He joined a bible study class with my mother and together the two joined others from Our Lady of Assumption parish to explore the hidden meanings of the bible. 

At his funeral, a group of women from this group took up the best part of a pew towards the back of the church. As my brothers carried the coffin out from the church down the long aisle these women sang wildly and flung around tambourines in a folkie rendition of Turn turn turn.  Someone whispered to me they were charismatics, those devout folks who reckoned they could speak in tongues. I recognised the tune. Not the babble of a direct line to God. Maybe that came later. 

My father’s life was over, and these women celebrated his life, a life of which they had little idea, as they only met him in his final years after he had turned the corner of his crippling behaviour and found God. Again. 

My father grew up with God. In his childhood, the story goes, he was baptised in multiple religions, the Dutch Reformed church, among others and wound up with the Mormons.

Perhaps it was the Mormons who gave him the idea it was okay to have more than one wife. That gave him the idea he could take on any woman, including his daughters, as his own to possess sexually. 

Perhaps he read it somewhere in the bible, in contrast to the injunction, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’. Somewhere he read the fundamentalist clap trap that reckons women belong to their husbands, the stuff that enables the more fundamentalist among us to consider it okay to coerce their wives into submission. Perhaps. 

Catholicism seemed a safe religion to enter, especially as it enabled him to marry my mother in the days when mixed marriages were frowned upon. In the days where sameness and silos of like-minded souls in fundamentalist religions, each of which argued theirs was the one true faith, prevailed. 

During the war when he was a captain in the Dutch army my father shared a tent at one time with a chaplain, or so my muddled memory reminds me. He spent much of his time negotiating with God to keep him alive, along with his fellow soldiers.

It must have been a tough time. Like so many other veterans of war, my father rarely spoke about it and certainly not to his daughters. 

My youngest brother told me that towards the end of his life, our father sometimes regaled him with stories of war, but mostly he would not even let the TV series Combat flicker on our television screen for more than the shorts before the order came to turn it off.

I write in long sentences. My sentences too long in these days of the quick grab. The quick bite. The ease of communication. I write clause after clause. Too many, too fast. And cringe at the thought that future generations will lament. The tediousness of my generation’s love of too many words. Sentences that go on forever.

 The past is a foreign country, a bad neighbourhood as Anne Lamott writes of her mind, one she tries not to visit too often. 

The past is my playground. I visit often. More often these days when so much is behind me now. So much to pluck from the stirrings of memory. The smell of a flower, the hint of autumn in the air, the first stirrings of blossom buds on the trees. 

I walk past a child in a pram, look back to see the face of the child flanked by the four walks of their mobile bed and look for that newness of smile, that promise of a life ahead. That sense that rushes at me from my own first memories. A time when everything was new and filled with the ecstasy of the sublime. 

I did not ascribe this to Jesus until I went to school and the angels took over as the owners of everything beautiful. The angels and saints as God’s ambassadors. But before then, the word ‘nature’ crept into my vocabulary.

It was nature, my sister told me, that left me with a sense of awe at the greenness of the grass, the black centre of a sun yellow daisy whose hairy stalk we plucked and spilt carefully with our fingernails. A wide enough slit to allow us to thread another daisy stem through in the creation of a daisy chain, you could perch on top of your head for as long as the stalks held firm. 

And the sad thing, when I think back to those days when the awe of religion crept into my experience, my father had abandoned his. 

I’m glad that he did. If he had remained devout throughout his life, I might not have seen that there were other ways to view the majesty of life outside the fragile frame of religion, a frame so fragile like a daisy chain in crumbles under pressure 

And my father’s hair hung in loose waves down the sides of his face, his beard a place where birds might once have nested were he such a man who might let other vulnerable creatures come so close. But he was not. And when I see him in my own face in the mirror I am in awe that my whole being rests on the existence of this man who is no more of this earth now beyond the soil in which he lies buried.