Several years ago my niece Judy found an old camera with film in it at my sister Glenda’s house in Ohio. My brother-in-law John bought it in Japan while he was in the Navy during the Korean War. It took color photos, which wasn’t common at the time among amateurs—this was some time before Instamatics and Kodachrome.
Judy took the camera to a camera shop, where they removed the film safely and developed it. She gave me a framed 5×7 print of one photo for Christmas that year. (I wanted to scan it for this blog post, but the print has stuck to the glass of the frame, so I can’t remove it without damage.) It’s the only color picture I have of myself as a small child. I look about two years old, still a bit babyish, in a dress and white baby shoes, with pudgy arms and legs and a round face. I am wearing an expression my friends all recognize to this day as, “I’m playing along with you because I have to, but you are trying my patience severely.”
This must have been a family outing of some sort since John and Glenda were there, and at that point we all lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, 40 miles away. I’m standing alone on the steps of the Confederate Memorial in Centennial Park in Nashville. It’s summer, and I will be three years old in the fall.
At the corner of the photo is my mother’s shadow, stretching over the steps close to my feet. She has a middle-aged figure, stout around the waist, and is wearing a bucket-shaped hat with a brim. Her shadow leans toward me. Mother is not reaching out to keep me from falling, but one feels that the moment the picture is taken she will sweep me off the stairs to safety.
Mother was afraid of many things, I learned as I grew older. Glenda said Mother was terrified that I would die as a baby, because she had had a miscarriage between my brother and me and because she was an “older mother”—all of 38 years old when I was born, the last of five children over a span of 19 years. She hardly let me out of her sight. Glenda said at one point I broke out in a rash, and Mother took me to the pediatrician. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with her. You’re making her so nervous she broke out.”
I spent most of my life convinced I was utterly unlike my mother in every way. I was rational, she was emotional. I was calm, she was nervous. She used to say, “You’re just like your daddy,” and I was proud. I tried to practice being the strong, silent type like him. I found it hard to say what I felt. But as I grew older I realized I wasn’t calm, I was just pretending to be calm. I was rational, but I had emotions too.
Mother died in 2004 after many years of illness and devoted care from Glenda. I miss her on Mother’s Day especially. No matter how old I get, her shadow is still there, on the edge of the picture.