It was just a photo from the past that I came upon that day.
From a dusty shelf in a booth she gazed at me from the gold frame at the antique mall. She smiled faintly as she gazed at whoever took her photo that long ago day.
I’m sure some of you recall this photo of the woman in the gold frame. My flea market relative.
Today I created a suitcase vignette in the dining room with her photo in it.
I was drawn to her in Texas, and have carried her along with me ever since. There was just something about her half smile, the look in her dark eyes, that beckoned to me. Made me wonder who she was and what her life was like.
Perhaps her true love was overseas in the military and she was waiting for him to return. She has this photo made of herself and sends it to him.
He will often bring it out of his cardboard box of belongings to gaze at, and wish he could put his arms around her, feel the softness of her cheek against his.
He wonders if he’ll make it out of this hellish place alive. To marry her and raise a family. He sits in his bunk and thinks about the two girls and two boys that she yearns for. They will have her dark eyes and his fair hair.
He will buy them a small house with a yard for the kids to play in. It will be a modest house with a small porch and a porch swing where they can sit and watch the passersby.
He will drive home from work each weekday, and often when he turns the corner onto their street he will see her kneeling there in her garden, the spade beside her, as she tamps down the seeds she’s scattered in the dirt.
He will feel a swelling in his chest of deep abiding love for the woman planting flowers in their yard. He knows that supper will be simmering on the stove as she waits for his car to pull in the driveway.
Come summer, he will turn the corner and be met by tall colorful zinnias and pretty morning glories twining up the porch column.
He will park in the drive way and she will meet him at the door, her apron on, and kiss him on the cheek. She will smile just like she does in the photo.
But, if he doesn’t make it out, it will have been this photo of her that got him through the long months and cold nights.
If he doesn’t make it to the line boarding the plane headed to the US, he hopes when they go through his meager possessions that they are extra careful with this precious photo.
But he did make it out. And they married and had three boys. One became a military man like his father, one became a doctor, and the youngest is a pilot. Later they will marry and give them grandchildren to hold and love.
Years will slip away like sand through their fingers. He will die first. She will be brokenhearted but determined to remain in the little house where love and flowers bloomed and children were born.
She will live on another decade, the years and the clock ticking a sad reminder of what was. When it was filled with boys rough housing while she cooked meals and waited for her love to return each evening from work.
And finally, she too will die. The boys will be scattered across the country with their families. Somehow, the photo unintentionally gets put into a box headed to the thrift shop.
So the photo goes from town to town, thrift shop to thrift shop, her smile pleading: “Take me home. I belong somewhere besides these dusty stores.”
And finally one day I will happen upon her. I will stand in the aisle and stare at her. The frame needs dusting, I notice. She will come home with me for a mere four dollars.
I will wonder if my mother might have looked like her. She looks motherly and kind. It is easy to imagine that she was someone’s mother, sister, daughter.
But I will be the one who claims her and gives her her rightful place in my home. I will dust the frame regularly. I will look into her eyes and wish that she had been my mother. That I was the baby girl who came along unexpectedly after their boys were in school.
My mother’s birthday was yesterday. I think she would be 78. Sometimes I think about her. It is hard to put together a framework when there are no memories to hold it up.
I wonder if she thinks about the infant she handed over in exchange for back rent owed to the landlady before she and my father and sister moved on. I wonder if leaving me behind tugged at her heart.
I wonder, as they drove away from that house, if she looked out the car window and gazed at the house where I remained. I wonder if tears were running down her face as the finality of their decision bore down on her and she could no longer see the house in the rear view mirror.
Many miles and several years away, when next she gave birth to a boy, I wonder if she thought of me. I wonder if her body remembered that other baby that grew inside her and was born on a cold winter day in February. The skies as grim and gray as they are right now.
I wonder if, like me, she sometimes looks up at the stars at night, and thinks maybe there is a chance that I am gazing at them too.
I forgave her long ago. She gave me a gift it just so happens.
For I know through whispered conversations when no one thought I was listening, that her life was hard. I believe that she was mentally incapable of keeping her children. She would end up giving birth to six children and somehow manage to lose them all.
I still sometimes gaze up at the stars. I have no memory of her or my father. They will never figure into my life in any real way. They are mere shadows from the past. Photos in a box in my closet.
I will rescue discarded vintage photos because flea market relatives are better than none at all. You can make up your own stories about them.