The Mothers of All Memory

I’ve been shuffling through sacks of old photos.  Photos I stole — yes, stole — from my mother’s house in 2003.  Let’s call it research.  It’s always surprising when these photos (a) spark up a memory I didn’t know I had, or (b) twist my memory around my rock-hard head to see the women I loved most from shifting perspectives.

This is my mother about age 18, two years before I showed up on her scene.  It is the most peaceful picture I’ve ever seen of her.

Funny, I don’t recall ever seeing it before, but that’s not possible.  Or is it?  When I was stealing all those photos, I’d grabbed them by the handfuls, like a starving kid stealing penny candy, and stuffed them into a box.  A box I only recently opened.  So yes, it is possible.  Years after she was gone I learned that her favorite place to go when she needed to escape was to the river.  And right there by the Mississippi she is.

I wonder who the photographer is.  I think she likes him.


This is my mother’s mother.  I’ve seen this Polaroid a million times.  Grandma Ann looks so calm, so happy, so content.  She looks like a woman who hugs children and likes it.

Without this one picture, I would never describe her this way.  Without this picture, I remember a frantic, loud, stressed-out woman, a woman too young to look so old, a woman all wrung out.  Without this picture, I don’t recall her ever hugging me.

Today, for the first time, I notice the Thanksgiving Dinner table.  I suddenly realize she is 5 years older than I am now.  And I forgive her more.

What happens when you look at an old photo that disagrees with the long-running film in your head?

32 thoughts on “The Mothers of All Memory

  1. jess

    My aunt sent me a photograph of my OCD grandmother and her mean alcoholic husband just after their wedding, pre-children, pre-alcoholism and alzheimer’s. They are happy and smiling and holding hands. I put this photo in my writing desk for a long time, as if it were some sort of secret. Now it’s framed, out in the open, with a whole bunch of other photos, as evidence.

    1. Teri

      Now that is a story. My grandmother’s husband was also a mean alcoholic. It’s a wonder our female ancestors survived their lives. I can’t even imagine living like that — they just lived.

  2. Averil Dean

    I came across a picture of myself and my oldest son when he was about 18 months old. He’s being completely adorable–exactly as I remember him–but I have my nose in a book. Completely oblivious, to him and his father taking the photograph.

    I thought I was a better parent than that.

  3. Teri

    I often wonder if I actually remember something, or if I only remember it a certain way because I’ve seen the photo of it too many times.

    Memoir = Memory
    Memory = Fallibility
    Fallibility = More Questions Than Answers

    1. Averil Dean

      And that, my friend is why I am afraid to attempt memoir.

      I meant to tell Jess that there is in fact a picture of me on my blog. (She asked about it the day you and I met on the beach.) I love having a face to go with the names of all my cyberfriends, but I let mine sink into the archives so as not to blow my alias at work.

      My hair has grown, Teri!

    2. lizisilver

      “More questions than answers”: your post, Teri, left me wanting to know so much more about you and your family. I want to know about stealing pictures, for instance.

      1. Teri

        I stole them after my mother died. Her husband gave me a window of minutes alone in the house — and he wasn’t letting me take anything except what he’d laid out for me — so I went through that house like a f-ing burglar on crack, stuffing 2 boxes full of stuff, taping them shut and shoving them in the trunk of my rental car before he got back.

        He’d gone over to his other farm to feed the livestock. By the time he got back, I’d showered and looked fresh and friendly and deadly sweet. Ready to chat about nonsense. Ready to pretend I liked being there.

      2. Lyra

        You are so my sister. We can have our heart beating out of our chest and drawing on reserves of genetic southern charm while chatting about the weather.
        I rarely use it, but I know it’s there.

      3. Downith

        I’m furious for you. How are you not entitled to pictures of your mother from BEFORE HIS TIME? Stuff like this makes me crazy.

      4. Teri

        I do understand, Lizi. This little group is as supportive, probably more so, than any writing group. We may not critique each other’s work, but all the other parts are here in spades.

  4. lizisilver

    It wasn’t a photo that rocked my world, but a painting in my grandparent’s house. It was signed by my mother, except with initials different than the ones I knew she had. Specifically, the last letter was different. I was 7 years old, noticed it, and ran to my mother demanding an explanation. She tried to play it off but I didn’t give up. Even at that age I knew something was up. I cried and cried on my grandparent’s bed when she finally told me the truth. She had a life before we came along? She had a life before my father?

    1. Teri

      That’s an opening to a story, my dear … I love that you’re here bumping around with us, Lizi. And your S is a doll.

  5. macdougalstreetbaby

    We had a few albums in our apartment, filled with pictures of us when we were infants. My mom and dad looked so happy together. I believed they were happy. There was this one picture that I used to stare at for hours. I was a newborn and my father was holding me high on his shoulder, like he was showing me off. I thought I could feel his love. I thought that picture was telling me some truth. I don’t know why my mom kept those albums, especially since she couldn’t even speak his name without her eyes narrowing. She should have just thrown them out. I would have done so much better without those visuals. They were so misleading.

    1. Teri

      There are always those few photos (among the hundreds) that we stare at over and over again, that we gravitate to, latching onto the story it tells. Telling, isn’t it, the lies those truths can tell.

      Hugs for you, MSB.

  6. Lyra

    Maybe that’s why I’m so obsessed with my photo albums. Someone else will see just a picture whereas I can see the strain in someone’s eyes or the lack thereof. Either way, it’s far closer to the truth than I can ever get describing it with words.

    1. Teri

      Thank you, Lisa. Coming from you that’s the finest of compliments. Think I’ll carry around in my pocket today …

  7. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

    Your posts always strike me because not only do you write so well, you write from the heart. And it shows. Some of us hide behind the trite and the funny because it’s easier.

    That said, most of my old family photos are truly happy ones. I know. I count my luck for my childhood every single day.

  8. Laura

    When I was a teenager, I found a photograph of my mother’s high school senior portrait. The photo stunned me: my mother looked beautiful and sophisticated. But more than that, as odd as this sounds, I couldn’t recognize her nose. Weird, I know, but her nose looked bigger/more pronounced that it did then in the present time. (And no, my mother definitely did not get a nose job…just something about how she looked when she was younger, I guess.) I immediately walked that photo over to my mother and said something goofy like, “Oh wow, look how big your nose looked!” I know, I KNOW, a ridiculously stupid and insulting thing to say, and she got really upset. I completely hurt her feelings when the weird thing is, what I actually meant to say to her was: “You were so beautiful, and still are, and I’m struggling to recognize myself in who you were then and who you are now.” It’s too bad I never got to say that to her for real.

    1. Teri Post author

      I feel for you Laura. One of the last things I told my mother was that I didn’t like her mother. That’s not even true. Why would I say that? Leave her with that???

      This kind of thing is what compels me to write nonfiction. Though I also look forward to writing some historical fiction along the way — in which there will surely be mothers/daughters.

      1. Laura

        I very recently wrote a short nonfiction piece. Not about my mother specifically, but about my family. I don’t know how nonfiction writers do it. I mean, I can write the piece — but I can’t imagine sending it out for publication. It takes such courage.

  9. catherine

    Great post and comments. So complex and a lot of rich thoughts. Recently I was talking with my aunt, who gives a completely different view of my grandmother’s death (head-on collision, she had just had a long drinking night at their place). Whereas my mother has made her into a saint and a vacuum in her life. My aunt told me they never even got on!

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