Three years ago today my mom passed away. She had the biggest heart in the world the sweetest smile, and although she seldom shared much about her life with me, I cherish the few stories I did learn. This is a story about my mom that I wrote a couple of years ago.
It was the shoes that drew my eyes at first, brown oxfords on chubby dangling legs with slouching socks. The little girl’s downcast cherub face, wears a frown, her eyes so light in the sepia photo they appear blank. A boy sat on the other side of their mother, his feet and legs dangle, dirty and bare beneath shorts that come down to his knees. The photograph, from maybe 1927 or 1928, one of hundreds in my Aunt Minnie’s “Rogue’s Gallery” as she called it; framed photographs that lined almost every inch of wall space in her low cost subsidized apartment, in Richmond, Ky. Siblings, children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – she had a story for each one. But this one picture stopped me cold, held me there transfixed.
“Minnie, who is this?” I called out. She must have sensed the urgency in my voice for she came instantly. Even at 75, Aunt Minnie seldom missed a cue. She looked at the photograph and smiled warmly. “Well honey, that little girl, that’s your momma, Mary, and our momma, Louisa and little Dan. Haven’t you seen that picture before?” she asked.
Not only had I not seen that picture, I’d never seen any likeness of my Grandmother Louisa. I felt teary as I recalled my mother telling how her father died when she was only seven, her mother when she was nine. “I don’t even remember my mother’s face,” she’d told me when I was just six. The thought of losing one’s mother so young still pierced my thirty year old heart, but when I was six years old my tender heart had burst in agonizing pain. I could not imagine breathing if my dear mother died.
Mom seldom spoke of her childhood. “I really don’t remember,” she’d say when I would beg for tales. But I do remember her telling that she shared a pair of shoes with her brother, Dan. “Most of the time we just went barefoot,” she said, “in fact except in winter that was what we liked best. Daddy was a tenant farmer – we were poor; with ten children to feed and clothe there was never much to go around. As the youngest, my shoes and clothes were always hand-me-down’s or shared.” Her story didn’t amaze me as much as the fact that she never seemed to feel sorry for herself. “It’s just the way things were,” she’d say, and change the subject.
I immediately called my mother, who lived in Florida at the time. “Mom, I found a picture of Louisa, and you and Dan,” I squealed excitedly. But I wasn’t prepared for her reaction. For an instant, the thin shell that kept my mother’s heart together cracked open and she broke down and cried. Then finally, she replied, “Oh my God, I remember that just barely. I was really little and I was so upset ‘cause Momma made me wear those shoes. Minnie has that picture? “
I handed off the phone to Minnie who stood grinning, eager to chat with her baby sister. As they reminisced I held the photograph, a sacred link to the Grandmother I had never known. I looked into her kind tired eyes, her peaceful face, her small shy smile.
I’d dreamed of her and wondered who she was for all my life and now as I gazed into her eyes I felt I’d found her at last.
Minnie made copies of that picture for my mother, and for me and all my siblings. Mom’s sat, nicely framed on her dresser. “It looks so sad,” she said, “but it’s nice to remember her face.” As I look at the copy given me, sitting on my dresser next to the picture of my beautiful mother at 18, I still mourn for that little girl, an orphan child at nine, and for myself, an orphan now at 62.