Going through some family memento items recently I happened upon a small handful of very old black-and-white family photographs. Included amongst them was one showing three children? Fortunately, they are identified. It’s my uncle Basil (always a favorite of mine) who is now, alas, off in la-la land at around 90; my aunt Audrey (another favorite), still going remarkably strong and alert at 95; and my mother, who fled the life scene at age 72 back in 1992,
The photo is dated 1924, so my mother would have been four-years-old at the time.
Yet, despite her cute li’l Prince Valiant pageboy, I find the photo a bit chilling in an odd way. It’s something about the eyes. Whilst the other two kids are looking at a photographer, my mother is looking off to the side at another world that only she seems to be focused on. Barbara had left the building in some odd sense.
She was always like that – is the thought that struck me in a revelatory way. What was she looking at? What was she thinking about with that enigmatic expression?
I have really no idea, I only know that the expression she shows, with the passionless and fixed semi-smile and the faraway eyes was how she always seemed to look in my recall. Whatever was there for her was not to be accessible.
God, no wonder my parents had a terrible marriage. I couldn’t bear being married to somebody who gave a default appearance of being emotionally absent. Yet, I do believe that such was the case with her. And it obviously began in early childhood.
I never really figured the woman out, which is weird, since she was my mother. But honestly, I know virtually nothing about what made her work. As I have mentioned, she died of chronic alcoholism at a relatively premature but entirely predictable age. And in the later stages, as is the case with most alcoholics, she wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun. I need elaborate no more on that aspect of her being.
She was, I do know, extremely intelligent. She did very well in school, skipping grades and the like. She was notably well-read. I will grant her a great deal of credit in terms of my connections with literature, and for that I’m grateful. I was reading adult books by age 12, and pondering the social and political musings of people like Dos Passos by the time I was 15.
And she loved music, and she loved art. But about all of them she was almost pathologically lazy. In fact, she never did anything with them. In fact she gave up at a very early age. In fact her life in terms of self-fulfillment was predominantly a waste. For that, I am sorry for her.
For the fact that she also seemed virtually incapable of conveying any deep sense of love to her three children, I am not sorry for her, I am self-indulgently sorry for us. We missed out on something vital and have had to spend a lot of years compensating for the lack.
But, in a way, the photo tells me why. She wasn’t there. Maybe she never was. It’s OK with me. Eventually I had to move on, and I did. But, I still wonder about where she was all those years.