External Photo Clues:
I remember her hands, always her hands—moving when she talked. Emphasis and emotion rolling from her fingers, a constant energy in the air. Some nights I sat on the floor in front of her by the fire as she wound my hair in her hands, coiling each lock into a perfect pin curl. “There, Beauty,” she whispered. “All ready. Are you packed?” For thirty years we were together. For many of those years I was a photojournalist and split my life between worlds. With them and abroad.
On that day in the photograph, she was coming out of the back of the cathedral, carrying the baby tucked closely to her. She never took her out in a pram, wanting to keep the child constantly connected, it seemed. But I had watched them in the church before. I often came to the cathedral to study light and shadow. Sinner and salvation. To duck out of the rustling hum and chill of the city turning to fall. To be lost. To be found. And then I found her there.
When she stood at the altar over the votives, she glowed like a Madonna. The pooling amber light flickered on her wet cheeks, picking up the pink of the pale roses on her dime-store scarf. She would hold the baby in the crook of her arm as though the child were weightless, and as she put match to wick, her mouth would move in a silent prayer of, “I miss you. I miss you. I miss you.”
I had never taken a photograph of a mother and child before. Mostly I was assigned to follow the expats later in their lives, in London, Rome, and Paris. But I had been admiring this woman for weeks. I often wondered who her prayers were for, how she managed to care for a baby in the middle of New York, and who they belonged to.
I caught her off guard that day, as she stepped out the door, firmly holding the child to her chest, jaw set, head cocked like an alert wolf, daring anyone to come near her. I remember waving slightly and saying hello. I often came in through the back, to stop and smoke with the priests, and acclimate myself to the building. There was always something compelling about sneaking in through a stage entrance for me, to see the underside of things. (A kind of philosophy I would learn later that Beth shared as well.) She stopped then, and looked straight into my eyes. I saw the fullness of her features, her determined mouth and lightly rouged cheeks, her skin like spun honey. Irish, maybe, I thought. Maybe a little German. She didn’t smile. Like fire chewing through the abandoned, I felt my pulse climb. She dropped her gaze to my chest and the camera hanging from my neck.
“It’s a Rolleiflex,” I explained, trying to stumble upon something to say. “I’ve had it for a long time. But it has its charm. Do you mind?” I brought the camera up in a gesture of asking if I could photograph them.
And then she shrugged. “Sure, why not?” She laughed. The soft gritty smokiness of her laughter would remain unforgettable. “I’m Beth, and this little lump is Mabel,” she said, as she reached an introductory hand towards me. The way she shifted from protectress to this ease with me was reassuring.
I don’t know why I said it, but as she unwrapped Mabel from the soft, white cloud of her blanket, I did. Quietly. Staring into the viewfinder: “You’re safe with me, Kid.”
She laughed again, but not before I caught the shot. The shot before the pose. Beth looking down at Mabel, smiling softly into her sweet dimpled face.
“I have a feeling you’re somewhat less than safe,” she smirked. “You’ve been watching us, right? Fourth pew from the back? You should’ve introduced yourself.”
“Mmmhmm,” I mumbled, pretending to fool with the Rollei. “Everyone calls me ‘J’.”
Over the next few weeks, I would learn that Beth lived alone with Mabel, and that Mabel was her sister’s child. An unmarried sister who had left the baby behind. There were reasons for lighting candles, she said, as we sat in the park while Mabel crawled across the grass, giggling and toppling over as her rubbery elbows gave way, trying to reach the unsuspecting pigeons nearby. Soon it grew too cold for park dates. Soon it didn’t matter, as we unspooled the satin ribbons of secrets and lies, watched each other with carefulness in refracted light, felt warmth in fingertips touched to lips. Eventually, what is left is the headiness of moments.
Somewhat less than safe. Yes, yes.
Finally aging herself, I noticed, her long auburn hair dyed now to keep its perfect shade, so much like her aunt’s, the delicate skin at her throat tanned but slightly loosening, Mabel, our now grown child, had found this photograph tucked inside a scrap of paper and passed it to me as she taped one of the last boxes. “All ready, J? I think we’re packed.” This, of course, would be my last trip. Not far, really. Mabel was a good guide—sturdy, dependable, devoted. She smelled of Chanel and Gitanes. “Yes, Mabel, to The Home.” I grimaced.
“Really, J?” she sighed. “We’re going to play it like that?”
“What would you do, if I didn’t tease?” I tilted my head to catch her gypsy eyes. “It’s ok.”
Another soft sigh. I knew this was difficult for her. Packing boxes of old books, collections of my photographs. Beth’s mementos mingled with mine. I would’ve hired someone, but Mabel had insisted.
Sometimes editors from the glossies call, checking to see if I’m still alive. They run a small piece and some of the old photographs of Alice B. or Sylvia. I say the obligatory how grateful I am to have had the opportunity, how they just don’t make them like they used to… Beth was better with words. A decadent poet.
“I don’t think, Mabel, that anyone has ever seen this. Did you read what’s on the paper around it? It’s for you.”
“Are you sure? I thought it was just one of her poetry scraps. Didn’t bother to read.”
Even here, with the constant cry of the city, the smell of common saints deteriorating on the sidewalk, the chill of abandoned lands deep in our blood, know that, with J, we found a sliver of sun each day. I was here, and I loved you.
About The Author:
Jen Rouse is a consulting librarian at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA. She is a poet, teacher, mother, and artist. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Poet Lore, Trapeze, etc. She also writes a food blog–White Cake * White Frosting–as a sometimes hobby.
Authoring For The Imaginary Family Project:
Are you interested in “finding” one of our lost vintage photos by authoring a story?
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Imaginary Family Project Author Request Form
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.