Pictures from a lifetime ago

Real Life


I am at home, sick, when i hear a noise at the front door. I go to check, and find a large manila envelope tucked inside the storm door.

The envelope, mail from a cousin in New Hampshire, contains photographs that had belonged to her mother, my Aunt Mary, who died last March at the age of 90.

Many of the photos are familiar - me as a 3-year-old, school pictures of my brothers and my late sister - but at least three I've never seen before.

They are pictures of my mother, Dorothy. One is a formal portrait of an 18-year-old whose strawberry-blond, blue-eyed beauty has not yet reached full bloom. Another shows her at 12, with a wild mop of curls. The third, the one that affects me the most, is a large sepiatone of her at 16, a little plump, with a shy smile.

How bittersweet to see these pictures now.

My mother is 88, depressed and wheelchair-bound. She lives in a nursing home, and every Saturday and every Sunday, I go to see her. I do my awkward best to comfort her, and if I am there at meal time, as I try to be, I help her eat. I gather and wash her laundry one day and return it the next.

There is a sad, dull sameness to this routine. A good day is when my mother seems oriented and speaks loud enough to be heard. If she smiles or even laughs, it's a very good day. A bad day - well, there are many.

It's not a life I'd wish on anyone, certainly not my mother, yet there she is.

As I look at the pictures, I wonder what dreams that young girl from New Hampshire had for herself. And I wonder what my mother, these days so often confused, makes of the life she has had.

She told me once, decades ago, that she had wanted to be a wife and mother. I wonder whether she came to regret that wish.

As a young woman, my mother was a bookkeeper for the telephone company, and her co-workers thought she looked like Ginger Rogers. She played piano, she read a lot and she wrote poems that were published in Boston newspapers in the era when big-city papers still did that sort of thing. She had beaus as well - none serious until she met my father in the summer of 1941.

Three days after Pearl Harbor, my parents were married at an Episcopal church in Dover, N.H. Over two decades, Dorothy Merritt became a mother, not just to me but to six children in all.

My father viewed child care as woman's work, and was not a positive presence in the lives of most of his children. My mother was left to do her best on her own, and her children - smart, moody, demanding - wore her out. As adults, the two oldest would sever ties altogether and the youngest would distance himself by moving to the opposite edge of the continent.

My parents did plenty of moving themselves - from New England to upstate New York to South Carolina, back to New York, and finally to Anne Arundel County in 1974.

Widowed more than a decade, my mother has lived at the nursing home since she broke the same hip twice. Her one treat there, something that always gives her pleasure, is getting her hair done.

When my mother was young and carefree, I imagine she went to a beauty parlor from time to time to tend all those curls. Not so - ever - during her 53-year marriage. Most nights, before bed, she put her hair up in bobby pins.

Now, at least, someone else does her hair for her.

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