By Anastacia Greene
There’s a certain sadness in looking at old photos. I see them smiling up at me, waving, laughing, blissfully unaware of what the future will bring. My parents, smiling on their wedding day, my mother, proudly displaying a new Waterford plate. And me, giddy with the excitement of a new bicycle. Why do people always take these pictures, anyway? To commemorate, to mark a moment in time? We never look back, anyway. At least, my family never did, until it’s time to move them away. Or to say goodbye.
I sit alone in the kitchen, going through all the old photos as the TV blares from the living room. Ray doesn’t want to do this, doesn’t want to face all these memories with me. And I can’t really blame him. But it’s left to me to sift through these glimpses of moments from a lifetime, trying to find the ones that are true. Trying to find the right picture that shows who she really was, what she meant to me.
My mother smiles up at me in a black and white communion photo, dressed in a white dress and veil. Even as a child, her features are unmistakable – intense dark eyes and strong eyebrows of our Hungarian heritage, curly unmanageable black hair. And her expression, with a hint of stubbornness and will behind that pleasant smile. I pick up the photo, and add it to the board. The collage is almost finished now, and almost ready to be displayed at her funeral.
I rummage through the photo albums and boxes stacked around me on the table, and pick up a box at random. We found this cigar box in the back of the closet as I was picking out her clothes. When I open it, I smell a whiff of my mother’s perfume, almost as if she had just passed by me. Inside, I find more photos – of her bridge circle, my immigrant grandparents staring stoically, unknown babies. And there is my mother, dancing in the arms of a soldier, laughing. The edges of the photo are faded with age, and the couple stands frozen in the amber hues of the past. I turn the photo over, trying to discern when it was taken.
The inscription on the back reads simply, “Bill, 1951.” I turn the photo back over, puzzled at the cryptic message. Who was Bill? An old boyfriend? Some long-lost cousin, a friend? The laughing faces give me no guide. My mother looks so different there, I think, suddenly struck by her expression. The wariness and stubbornness that always seemed to lay coiled within her is gone in that photo. She looks blissful, radiant… free. I’m struck by a moment of irrational jealousy. Why couldn’t I have known her like that?
Beneath the photos, I find the answer. A stack of letters, tied together. Each one addressed to my mother from one Bill Paterson. As I go through the letters, a growing sickening sense of dread overtakes me. In these letters, he writes to a woman I never knew, a stranger who confesses her dreams of becoming a designer, her sense of suffocation in a loveless marriage, her loneliness and despair, and her love for him. Always, her love. And his letters, confessing that he could never forget her, passionate expressions of love and devotion, and finally, urging her to join him in California, where they could finally be together and start a new life. Then, at the bottom of the box, lies a ticket. A sky-blue ticket, dated July 2, 1956, for a Delta Airlines flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. One way. He had sent it with his last letter.
I pick up the ticket, transfixed, haunted by a memory that dances at the edges of my consciousness. When was this? In 1956, I was five years old, and we were living in the rented house on the edge of town… and suddenly, the memory hits me full force. My mother, in her mid-twenties, dressed in her favorite green dress, darting around the house as she hurriedly packs her belongings. Even as a small child, I could sense that something was wrong, and I began crying.
She comes over to me, pain etched on her face, and assures me that we’ll be together soon, that she’s just leaving for a little while. I catch a whiff of her perfume as she kneels to hug me, she’s crying too, and now I’m bawling because she’s never ever cried before. And she pulls away, dragging the suitcase behind, a blue ticket in her hand. I rush to the window, and watch the white Dodge pull away, devastated without knowing why… She came back two hours later. I remember running to the door, jumping up into her arms, and hugging her tight, with the innate sense of a disaster averted. And she squeezed me so tightly, like she would never let go.
As I sit here now, staring at the ticket, I feel again that sickening sense of fear and desperation, that terror of losing her, the relief of her return. And it hits me like a punch in the pit of my stomach – she abandoned me. She really did. But she came back. All this time, I had believed that my mother had stayed in a bad marriage because she didn’t have other choices, didn’t have other expectations. I looked with the wise folly of youth at my mother’s generation, who were not liberated like we were, not free to choose a different path. But she did, she did have a choice. And she chose me.
I have reached the bottom of the box. The ticket was included in the last letter. After that last letter, no other letters came. Did she tell him to stop? But she kept this all the while, buried at the bottom of her memories. Why? I remember again the sense of something left hidden, something left unsaid inside her. And I want to ask her so many questions – how did she meet Bill? Did she love my father? What kind of designs did she envision? Did she have regrets? But I want to ask her about other things, too, random questions about her favorite movie, her first kiss, her happiest memory. I pick up the photo again, almost willing her to answer, searching for understanding. But the woman stays silent, dancing away from me. “I will never know,” I realize, and the ache of that is enough to set off a nuclear bomb. It feels like I’ve only begun to know her after she is gone.
I pick up the photo of my dancing mother, and add it to the collage. It fits perfectly in the corner, like a missing puzzle piece, completing the whole. And I look over the various incarnations of Maria Antonia Kovacheva Roberts; as sister, friend, mother, daughter, wife, grandmother and, finally, beloved. Her black eyes look out at me from childhood to old age, reassuring and wise, and I feel lost in their unknown depths. For an instant, I feel almost like she is looking at me again, reaching out to tell me that it will be okay, that nothing is lost.
It’s like a dam bursting, and I begin to weep for the first time since her death. I am crying so hard, I don’t even notice the TV turning off, or the footsteps approaching. Strong hands grip my shoulders reassuringly, and I turn to Ray, dissolving as he holds me tight.
“Will you ever leave me?” I ask him, my voice almost that of a small child.
“No, honey,” he says, “Never.”
I cradle my head into the crook of his shoulders, taking comfort in his words even knowing that they are a lie. Everybody leaves you eventually. But maybe, maybe, they will come back.