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I always idolized my mother. I loved watching her hands make piecrust; her Chanel No 5 mixing with the strong aroma of vanilla extract would intoxicate me. It was thrilling to share her space, as she moved gracefully about her kitchen with efficiency and great determination. She would eye her cherry pie from every angle imaginable. Mom took her baking seriously and she once told me, “That’s something I can do, so I’m going to do it well.” I learned as the years passed it wasn’t just her pies and yeast rolls that she worked so hard to create perfectly. Everything she touched had to be more than just good enough- it had to be perfect. Closing the oven door, she would turn towards me and with a smile illuminating her face. It was that time in the afternoon when the sun shoots brightly through the windows, and it poured across her long red orange hair. With milk white skin and generous sprinkle of freckles, she was beautiful. She was my Mom.
Yes, every picture tells a story, even though it’s hard to know what it actually might be saying. You think about the events surrounding that image enclosed within that frame. Mom is holding my baby brother Timmy, so even though her face shows the innocence of a teenage girl, she is actually twenty-seven years old. Mom has already been married nine years. Every person can see a picture, and come away with a completely different narrative. It’s like putting together pieces of a personal puzzle. When I was little, my mother was a vision in long red hair – a young girl’s hair, free and beautiful. Now, in this photo she is a young matron, with the tamed and shortened hair to match. An older woman’s hair, flattening out that once free young girl. Only 27.
Yet there is so much I love within this picture. My baby brother Timmy’s outstretched fingers. His hands and feet were so big I remember being amazed at the sight of them. Mom kept telling me “He’ll grow into them, you did.” I can almost smell the baby lotion and powder as mom gently placed him in my arms. I see her go through the motions of softly brushing a tiny patch of almost non-existent hair on the back of his head, with his tiny blue baby brush, while he was still in my arms. Mom took great pride in how we looked, and dressed us all beautifully. It’s comical seeing the baby cowboy boots on his feet and knowing in just a few years she’ll be begging him to wear tennis shoes with his shorts instead of Dingo boots.
I know this picture was taken on Sunday morning right before church. I recognize my Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Larry’s overturned green lawn chair and metal trash container behind her. Many years were spent in that back yard, and Larry enjoyed taking pictures well before it was such common practice. I’m grateful he did.
Mom’s dress was glorious! A pale icy blue favorite always reserved for church. I had accompanied her to a favorite boutique, which was sandwiched somewhere between our dentist office and the hardware store on Main Street in Oakland City. It was called the ‘Smart Shop’ and was home to a very mysterious mannequin standing at her post in the right corner picture window. To a seven-year-old boy – well, this seven-year-old boy – that mannequin was fascinating. While Mom examined racks of clothes, I examined the mannequin. I studied every detail, trying to decode its strange and compelling presence. Each visit Mom and I made to ‘Smart Shop’ was a chance for me to see that mannequin in a completely new outfit and wig. I was magicked by her. Every tiny aspect of her presence was engraved in my mind. So much so, that even if her hand was turned just even slightly, I knew it. The only unchanging detail on my mysterious mannequin was the beautiful black satin ribbon that crisscrossed each foot.
When Mom stepped out of the dressing room in the pale icy blue dress, I could tell by the expression on her face that it would be coming home with us. I fell in love with Mom’s dress. It’s possible I loved it even more than she did, as I imagined as something Edith Head might have designed. I loved the beautiful embroidery that scalloped around the sleeves and laced its way down the front, ending at the thin belt. Mom had a beautiful black patent leather handbag that she carried whenever she wore her pale icy blue dress. And right before heading out to church, I remember her pulling out a special cloth reserved just for that purse. I’d watch her polish that bag until we could see both our reflections in it. And as I followed her down the sidewalk towards our church, the early morning breeze gently kicked out the pleats of her dress. She walked with that same graceful determination she had in our kitchen.
Sometimes, just looking out of kitchen window, she seemed lost in far-away thoughts. I wondered if she too felt the pressure to be exactly what was expected of her, or was longing to be something different. Married at eighteen and a mother at 20. Yes, every picture tells a story. I sometimes joked about her newly acquired ‘old church lady’ shampoo-n-set, but in reality I missed her beautiful long red hair. I missed brushing it out while sharing classic movies. I missed the beautiful sense of calm that existed when I was little and it was just the two of us. Her long hair was connected to those moments for me. I would remember it while watching her look out that window, the sunlight shooting a beautiful golden haze through her long orange red hair. In my young mind, her hair represented some sort of fiery independence that I believed existed somewhere inside her. The rigid and uncompromising ways of that time period were suffocating and all consuming. I felt differently, and believed perhaps Mom wanted more.
We had this beautiful cedar chest. I called it a treasure chest. Besides seasonal sweaters and wool skirts, Mom kept special keepsakes inside our treasure chest. Birth certificates, baby teeth, some of my drawings. She had a beautiful fur collar that attached to her coat. Oh, how I loved to hold it. Mom didn’t open our treasure chest very often, but when she did it was a special event. Crouched next to her as she lifted the lid, I’d wait for that familiar woody-spicy scent to come wafting out and surround us. And each and every time, Mom would carefully lift each keepsake out. Smiling, laughing, and remembering. Sometimes she would look at something as though seeing it for the first time. As though she was casting a fresh eye on it all.
Except on this day. Mom seemed to look resolutely past all the carefully stacked keepsakes for something in particular. Suddenly, she paused, and lifted out her long red ponytail. She had saved it when she had cut off her hair and been transformed into the image of the perfect Winslow lady. It was held together with a thick rubber band. She stop talking and just held it in both hands, turning it over like a piece of forgotten gold. It made me smile. Yes, every picture tells a story. Because now I know, change was on its way.