Sometimes the little divots in your heart smack a body upside the head, taking on weight once you come to an understanding with yourself.
Occasionally, someone From Today asks what my family looked like Back Then. Readers here probably get a picture of the typical dysfunctional family– black nail polish, foaming at the mouth. Nothing could be further from the truth. We kept our tails tucked in our britches, thanks much.
In fact, we looked like the ideal conservative Christian family unit, just busting over with family values and stuff. Those who knew us back in the day sometimes have difficulty believing my story strictly based on the pristine appearance we trotted about in public.
That was my doing. The beast played along.
Well dressed and respectful–I saw to it, even if it meant beans for a week. I held my husband’s hand in public (when he let me). I called him baby. My husband called me sweetheart but only when anyone walked within earshot. Our home was always clean, the yard mowed, the bread homemade. If the wife didn’t laugh at the husband’s jokes, so what? That dear man was the stronghold of the family, clearly. The wife seemed mighty uptight. If the kids jumped when dad raised his voice, just showed how well he’d trained the kiddies.
Hard to admit now, but I wanted my husband’s approval and affection. If he only gave it with others looking, so be it. It was a game we played. I could sit close, hold his hand and, for a few moments at least, pretend everything was okay. We both knew the rules. When company backed out of the driveway, the atmosphere changed and we returned to our corners for the duration.
Red Flags Waving
There were signs of course if a body knew where to look. The constant jokes about my cooking or cleaning or general lack of intelligence might have been a clue. The digs taken at the children’s expense, burrowing word by word into their softest parts carried an edge that bordered on the masochistic. So while some things were more obvious than others, nothing stood out and grabbed you by the throat. Except for one small little detail.
Our home looked like something from a magazine shoot. Sounds good, right? The insidious nature of this lies not in the presence of possessions, but in their absence. Our home was devoid of personality.
The word memento comes from the same root as memory and therein lies the problem. Some of us do not want our memories. Not something you’d notice really, not at first. I sure did. I stripped that house with a vengeance, regularly and on purpose. Visiting the home of friends and family, I wondered how they could abide all those pictures and ticket stubs and trophies lying about. Never crossed my mind there might be a reason behind the sterility of my decorating scheme.
Hindsight and All That
Lying here in my single bed, roommate muttering to herself in the dark, I finally stopped hyperventilating long enough to understand the lack of family pictures on the walls of our home. For years, I said they interfered with the decorating. Now the truth haunts me—the sight of all those innocent little faces, the soft eyes so sweet and trusting. . . hurt too stinking much, even then.
What loving mother doesn’t want baby pictures on the wall? Yeah, that would be me. In fact, about ten years ago, I stopped taking photos altogether. That wasn’t always the case.
When my firstborn arrived, I traded in the instamatic for a high quality Nikon 35mm, single lens reflex camera. I checked books out of the library and played with a few rolls of film until I could take reasonably high quality photographs. The oldest children are well chronicled.
When coupons arrived for the local photo studio, I dressed the babies in fluffy lace and/or cowboy chic and prayed they’d cooperate. In no time, a whole lineup of professionally framed sixteen by twenties lined the space over the living room couch. A huge portrait—very nice actually—of myself and the beast graced the space over our bed. Keepsakes, mementos and memories packed our tiny little home, for better or worse. And then we moved.
I remember standing in the much larger living room with the beamed ceiling and massively empty walls, looking through the box filled with framed faces and carefully folding the cardboard box flaps back down. I tucked the whole thing in a walk-in closet and said I’d hang the pictures another day, when I had time, when I found the level. I never did. About this time, the studio portraits stopped. Too expensive, even with a coupon. My camera became misplaced. Film cost too much. Processing was ridiculous. Eventually, a single picture of each child made its way into the dining room. And then we moved again.
By now, photos were digital. I had a few hidden on my computer (taken by others and graciously shared). The kids sure noticed. My lack of motherly sentiment annoyed the kids and became fodder for an ongoing battle with the beast as he used this as another example of my lack of involvement in family life.
“Where are the pictures mama? Why aren’t there any of me?
“Someday. I’m a little busy at the moment and when I get around to it, I’ll frame a few and. . .”
Never happened. The single box of photos I’d taken back in the day with the fancy new camera went to the attic. The frames filled with portrait studio photos from the first decade of marriage sat taped inside the same ratty box.
I told myself I just wasn’t the sentimental type. When we all get to Glory, we won’t be taking our scrapbooks with us now will we? Might as well not get too attached to the things of this world. I could over spiritualize anything given enough time and rationalization.
When did pictures become too painful?
All I know is this– I still cannot look at the pictures of my babies without recalling the pain. How wrong everything was. How twisted their father became. I try. I really, really try. But I cannot separate the two because the two are joined somehow in my heart. He hurt me, he hurt them. I look and remember.
I recall where we were when each photo was taken. I recall the blow up before and after. I recall the humiliation attached to each image. I can’t escape. I remember how he hurt my babies, I remember their little faces, I recall how impotent I felt, the stunned disbelief that any father would treat his own kids this way.
On quiet days, I sometimes pulled out the photo albums and peeked through. I carefully tucked the wayward thoughts inside and looked—really looked—at those beautiful little faces. I remember kissing those cheeks and running my fingers through the downy soft hair. I remember how they smelled after a bath and the soft promise of tiny feet that never touched the ground. But I can’t have the pictures out where a stray glance might bring on the bleeding all over again.
Some Things Never Change
When I left, I took no pictures, no scrapbooks, not one album. A normal mother would’ve chosen those first over clothes or books. I said I’d be back but lying to myself is wearing thin these days. I’ve had a dozen chances to retrieve the box in the closet and every time, something else of more vital importance found its way into the backseat—the immunization records, my real estate license, the cat toys.
I want my photos back. Someday I intend to stand toe-to- toe with the beast and demand their return. They belong to me and my children and their children after. That’s the way it is, the way it should be.
I’m just not sure I’ll ever want to see them again.