My childhood lives in a wooden chest in my house, bits of paper all piled up, stacked in no order just random snapshots taken on different cameras over a blurry time line. My early years are all black and white, when photo's were a one shot deal, you had to peel off some kind of film after a certain amount of time, they are all fading to soft grey as a tiny me sits between my parents on old wooden steps in front of an army owned house on a base in Kansas. Then they slowly turn to color with pretty white borders as my sister enters the picture, an apartment building in Hawaii, my grandmother in a big blue dress, she has come to help my mother who is sick, has a blood clot in her leg from birth control pills she forgets to take and smoking cigarettes one after the other.
My brother follows my sister after several miscarriages, and alien abduction, and my fathers discharge from the army, the photos are all yellows and browns, there is ironed hair, long side burns, and mustaches where eyeliner and greased back hair use to be. We all have home made shaggy hair cuts, sun tans, and our little house on Guadalupe Parkway is full of ashtrays and spider plants in macrame hangers, bookcases made out of cinderblocks and wood planks, we play hand-me-down Masterpiece and Yatzee on handmade rag rug my mother made.
Our teenage years are not as well documented, we are seen in a series of photos taken with stolen or borrowed cameras, 110 film, grainy, rounded edges, Poloroid with a thick pocket of processing fluid at the bottom, glimpses of a holidays, a birthday, a trip to the beach. We are in houses and apartments, things are falling apart but we smile we don't know anything different, looking back only the three of us understand what all that stuff in the background represents, what it it triggers in us now that we are grown up.
I found most of these photos several years ago in a closet in a fourplex we all once lived in. It was my least favorite place, too many bad memories, it was the end of my childhood, it was the last place I lived with my family, I left there to begin my own family at the age of 18, my sister and brother stayed behind a couple more years then left to start lives of their own. We forgot the photos until my mother was arrested, I went back for them, it is all I wanted from that place, proof.
The picture taking changes when it is my camera, well Steve's camera, one he bought in college for a class. We take photos of vacations, my growing belly the births of our children. Slowly we take photos of everything else, with new cameras, hundreds and hundreds of pictures that fill the rest of that wooden chest. I took photos of my babies asleep, of them staring out windows, I dressed them up in costumes and snapped them being fairies and bunnies. Steve recorded events, he took a heavy camera with us where ever we went and would stop us to record a moment that was lost by the stopping but I am glad we can look back and remember it.
Tonight I visited my parents, the first time in over a year. I don't do it because it is painful for me. I don't know how to be grateful or kind, I am still angry at them after all these years for being the wrong parents, for not returning me to my real parents. I piled my kids in the car and my husband drove me out to San Jose where they still live so that I could say good-bye to them. My mother is dying.
I didn't bring a camera to record this milestone, I just sat with her and said all the wrong things because it was scary, because I imagined this day a million times and never did I think I would be sad. My parents once so young and strong, so damaged, bad-ass, law-breaking, drug-taking, were old and weak, and alone. They surround themselves with pictures in old broken frames, of them young, of people who are no longer alive, their grandchildren that they barely know.
Tonight I flashed through our lives could see it all through the lens of a camera, and tonight I am not angry. I see these people as people, I see myself in them, my children in them. They are where my story begins like it or not. This woman gave birth to me, this man went to a war in Vietnam because it was a job and he was 17 and I was a baby who needed to be fed.
I won't have a picture of my mother looking like a broken bird, or my father falling apart staying alive because he doesn't want her to be alone, doing all the things for her now he never could do before, both of them living out the last of their karma. They are not old, only in their 60's but they have lived hard lives made harder by bad choices and mental illness.
My mother is cared for by strangers, hospice nurses that come and hold her hand because I can not, because we will not because those hands hurt us. I made her the enemy because I had to be the mother. I held my siblings close because I didn't want her to break them. We shut them out of our lives because the lifestyle they lived could easily leak into better lives we were working hard to give ourselves.
I see tonight that none of it matters.
I told my mom to go, to let just let go and get the hell out of here. It feels like she had done enough, lived through enough, caused enough pain, loved the best she could and I could not stand to see her suffer. My sister like my dad are too afraid to let go and mad at me for giving up and giving in and they see me releasing her as unkind, as discarding her, what they do not understand is that I am afraid too.
I let Elliott touch my mothers hand and when he did I felt him say to her "You are only going where I just left, you will love it there" Noah sang songs while he softly strummed his guitar, he was not afraid, he was kind and loving, he made us all cry. My sister reached out past her fear and told my mother she loved her. My dad cried, got mad at me, tried to take Noah into another room and introduce him to jazz and blues and share a little of himself, connect to my son through music.
One last good bye, and by the door a wedding photo, my Uncle Bill with slicked back black hair, my grandmother with a big corsage and lipstick, my mother young, in an up-do wearing pumps and a beautiful dress, her face is mine.