Pictures of You This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

My mother loved taking pictures. Not as much as some mothers, who are ridiculous and obsessive and lurk behind their lenses and never see what’s going on until the film is developed. All the same, she liked pictures – of birthdays and us as little kids and Christmas and the dog. She’d have us pose all straight and neat and orderly, make us take off our hats or move for better light, then she’d call out, “Smile! You’re on candid camera!” which never made sense, since nothing was candid about our stiff poses we held until our eyes watered (and we were too young to know the TV show).

I’m not like that. All of my pictures are wild, taken upside down and sideways, snapped in the flightiest moment when everything’s moving and you can’t see anyone’s eyes. Just their mouths about to say something, and their faces turned toward the sun, just as I remember them.

My mom doesn’t think they’re good, or something you’d put in a frame. Her pictures are frame pictures, album pictures. She used to put everything in albums, all of the parties and little events no one would remember otherwise.

There used to be a bookshelf when I was little that was filled with all sorts of useless things: statuettes and medical journals and big dusty books and lots and lots of framed pictures. But down on the bottom two shelves, tucked away in a corner, were the albums my mom had made. She would sit with me, my tiny spidery fingers eager to skitter over the pages, and we’d choose one and open it and she’d point and tell the stories again – of so-and-so who used to visit us … and oh, that’s your great aunt, remember she used to make you pillows? – beautiful things about these people I knew or had forgotten, trapped in little squares.

My brother and I have our own albums. You can tell my brother’s right away; it’s blue and cloth and all soft to hug, and it’s the biggest by far. Mine is brown leather, hard and sharp like all the other unimportant albums. It begins when I was seven and skips around in time, and there are some blank pages at the end and two after my second birthday. Not that it isn’t special or anything, mine is just different, that’s all.

On the lowest shelf, there were these old albums, all falling apart, pictures falling out between the pages. You didn’t look at those, didn’t touch them. They were old, very old. And that was all she said. I was a good little girl, and the pictures were not interesting to me, so I obeyed.

I forgot about these albums as time went on, and before long there was a new camera and everything was on shining discs and we didn’t have to bother with the mess of old pictures. But there are fewer pictures now. There isn’t any point to them, just pixels and wasted memory space. Maybe I wanted to give them purpose again, so I started taking my own, curious stuff that would force people to ask what happened.

Not long ago, perhaps a couple of Tuesdays past, the cabinet under the lamp was open. It wasn’t ajar, like somebody had been looking for something and forgotten to close it, but wide open, yawning like a cave. The day was long with little to do, and the afternoon sunlight was pouring through the sliding door, making tiny dust fairies dance on its rays, enchanting me to sit. I pulled the heavy volume onto my lap, opening the first page with an explosion of time’s accumulated dust. I was amazed I’d forgotten so much – who was that man, and why is Jen frowning? Album by album, I set them in piles, making a fortress around me, until, at the back of the cabinet, there they were – all crinkled and faded with age, like autumn leaves in my hands. A small whisper in the recesses of memory said not to touch, they’re old and you’re too wild for fragile things. But I’m older now, I said, and I opened it.

The pictures were small and falling right off the pages, which were like wax and barely covered in a piece of crumpled plastic. There were the black and white ones, like westerns, and the ones that must have been left too long in the sun because the color was pulled out. Each felt different, like Braille. Some were taped together. It didn’t matter; that’s what made them beautiful. Suddenly, glowing up at me from every page, was the bright face of my mother.

She was maybe 20, slender and lovely, with a silky curtain of jet-black hair swishing about her waist, with giant brown Asian eyes. My eyes, and my chin. Some guy is carrying her on his shoulders – who was he? Not Dad.

I turned the page. There, now 16, looking silly in a frilly dance costume – you danced? And there, with all of your friends – why are they all Asian like you? Wait, no, there’s a blond girl. You look just like me in that one, Mom. Hey, that looks like Jimi Hendrix, did you really live in the ’60s? Oh, your prom … were you nervous? And there, you’re older now, must be 21, you went to France then. Yup, there’s Paris, what’s that place, Mom? Who are they? Oh, that must be your best friend, Kathleen. She looks like your sister. There’s that guy again, from the first picture.

I reached the last page and flipped back to the beginning. It’s only 10 pages, but I’ve never seen so many pictures of her. She looks like me. I’ve never seen her smile so large. I can’t imagine her doing such crazy things … though she’s still the same person now. There’s that timid insecurity there, bashful and scared of being looked at. You were the sensible one of your friends, weren’t you?

And it’s scary, looking at these, because all of a sudden my mother is a real person, someone I could have given a high five to and listened to music with. She was just a kid – not all wise and orderly.

Before I knew it, my mom walked in, and my head jerked up from the little bubble of nostalgia. I stared at her, and she stared back. I could hardly believe she was suddenly so old. She looked upset because I had made a mess of her living room. Then she saw the album. All of those questions were on the verge of detonating inside me.

“Hey Mom,” I said, grinning. She was still looking at the album with a funny look in her eye. Then she smiled and moved a pile of volumes out of the way and sat down by me. She took the album in her hands, tenderly. “Look at this one, Mom,” I said. “Isn’t that that castle in France? Don’t we have a picture just like that one?”

She nodded, suddenly bubbly. “Versailles. Back then, it was much more open to the public. Wish we could have seen the Hall of Mirrors. See this? That’s Bordeaux …”

And so we sat, for a long, dust-filled afternoon, she telling me stories of all the people and places behind the pictures, just like when I was little, only now these aren’t pictures of me, they’re of her, and she’s 16 again, and I don’t know why but I swear I could have taken these pictures.

Then I realized that that picture, there, was taken a bit sideways, and the other she shot upside down, though she put it right side up later. And that one – she’s standing on a bridge, arms spread out, and all you can see is the laugh on her mouth, about to say something to the sun that’s gleaming in her hair. Just as she remembers.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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blinkingandbreathing said...
Jan. 20, 2009 at 2:50 am
really now?! first to comment? seriously. this was way too beautiful of a piece to ignore... and i come from a family of photographers, so i know you what you mean.... all the way. but aside from me being able to share your perspective, your writing is excellent. word choice, voice, etc.... you've got it all. and your ending? it's pretty perfect.
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