Saturday 11 December 2021

Those Pictures Mothers Carry around with Them


The first time I saw it she was visiting me and took out her purse to pay for a purchase. There it was, inside her purse, a picture of me. An old and unflattering picture of me. It was a passport photograph, taken years ago. My hair was in a style I’d not had for years, short and flat. I was staring fixedly into the camera, no smile on my face, the harsh light making my skin seem pale and unhealthy. I wondered why she had chosen that one, but I said nothing. It wasn’t an easy question to ask.

I have many pictures of her. Ones from her youth, as a bright and happy young woman, her hair short and dark, dressed in pale or white summer dresses with wide belts and full skirts. Pictures of her in motherhood, her clothes changing over the years, showing her own slow change in tastes. Pictures of her taken only in the last few years, her as the rosy-cheeked, white-haired grandmother that she grew into. (I have no pictures of her at the end, a tired and ill old woman, but I don’t want to remember her like that.)

I didn't keep any pictures in my wallet. Even if I did they would become lost in the chaos of paper, cards, loose coins and my different IDs and all the other things tucked away in there. For me pictures are placed in frames and hung on walls so that everyone can see them, enjoyed at a glance. That’s what I did with my favorite pictures of her. Not hidden away in the dark and clutter of my wallet. (I have heard people say that they carry pictures of their loved ones, their partners or children, with them so they can see them whenever they want to. I carry around my memories of her with me, as bright as any photographs.)

I always wondered why she chose a picture of me to carry around. I am not her only child; I have an older brother and sister. Maybe that was the reason. I was her youngest child, the last one to leave the nest. After I had gone she was no longer a mother, the role she had had for over forty years. Maybe there is a special bond between a mother and her youngest child, I don’t know, and if there ever was I am ashamed to admit I never noticed. Why that picture, of all the ones she had of me, such a harsh and unemotional one, to carry with her? (It is too late now to ask these questions.)

At the end, as she lay there in that bed being cared for by nurses who it had only taken her a few days to grow close to, I was unable to ask any but the simplest of questions. I had thought, at the end, I would be able to ask her all those questions I had been yearning to know the answers to, ones over which I had puzzled and wondered for years, not least about that picture. When the time came, all I could ask were the basic questions, "Are you comfortable?" and "Is there anything you want?" The profound forgotten and replaced by the important.

As a child I had questioned and questioned her, why this and how that, almost challenging everything she said. As an adolescent I had distanced myself from her and her rules as I was fighting to be myself, whatever that meant. What did she know? Only as an adult, when I had become a professional in my own right, we were finally able to reach an understanding and peace with each other. I was still her son but now we could talk as equals. At the end I was the one she requested of, the one she asked to look after her husband, my father.

After it was all ended, the funeral and cremation and final spreading of her ashes, did someone find found that picture of me? As my sister-in-law and my sister were clearing out her handbag, the final act of tidying a life away, tidying away her now unneeded things, did they find her purse? As they emptied it did they find that picture of me and what did they make of it? These questions are unimportant; I will forget them and never seek an answer. Instead, I will hold on to those memories I have of her, memories that live outside of pictures.


For Joan Margaret Payne

12/1/30 to 2/5/01


(I originally wrote this in the week between my mother’s death and her funeral. It was my way of working out how I was feeling. I have rewritten it in the subsequent years, but the emotions here still remained intact.)

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