In my favorite picture of my mom, she’s painting the walls of the apartment on Hemlock Ave. We moved a lot back then, Hemlock being one of seven different places we lived between third grade and my senior year. This was back when you could knock on a door and talk to a landlord instead of dealing with a property management company, so getting out of a lease didn’t have to involve lawyers. Mom never said so, but by high school, I’d figured out the reason we moved so much – it was the only way we could make ends meet. When the end of a lease approached, mom would make an excuse for missing one month’s rent, make a tiny payment to show a good-faith effort to get caught up, miss the next month’s rent, then the landlord would seize the opportunity to get us out by not renewing the lease. Being a clerk at Ames or Doug’s Shop & Save or The Gap made it hard to save money, and this tactic allowed mom to pocket nearly two months of rent a year. I’m not saying it was right, but without it, I’m pretty sure we would have starved.
My father wasn’t the type to help, even if we’d known where to find him, and neither of us had any interest in looking. He used to tell me I was my mother’s child, which when your eight means you’re just like your mom. I liked that compliment. Years later, I realized he’d meant something different, that in his heart, I wasn’t his. DNA-wise, I was, but saying “you’re your mother’s child” was a way of creating emotional distance between us. It took me some time to figure out that he’d been leaving us long before he actually went out the door.
Mom was the queen of the bright side, so I’d never gotten a clear take on dad leaving – or on any part of her own life. For years I thought she was just pretending to be cheerful, trying to be like the TV moms who toss out bromides and bake cakes for no reason. We were perpetually broke, living out of boxes two months a year, continually figuring out the balance of hot and cold in the latest apartment’s shower – even Carol Brady would have slammed a few pots and pans in our circumstances, but mom never did. This was hard for me to understand. As much as I wanted to mimic mom’s optimism, sometimes I wanted to smash those pots and pans through the kitchen window. The day I took this picture is the day I told her so.
We were painting the new place, an apartment over a garage with rickety wooden stairs. By then we’d moved enough that we were quick to take a few photos when we moved in, knowing that a few years down the road it would be tough to remember the string of places we referred to as home. I was looking through the viewfinder of the camera when I had a powerful feeling of déjà vu – not like I’d lived the moment before, but that I kept living it, over and over. As she painted, she said she liked having all these windows, and liked that most of what we could see through the windows was trees. It felt like we were out in the wild, and she was ready to declare that this was her favorite apartment yet.
I told her she was nuts. The stove had two working burners, the bathroom light fixture made us look like zombies, and the landlord made no effort to pretend he would follow through on his promise to fix these things. I told her I thought this place sucked and that I wished we’d stayed on Willow – that was two apartments ago – and I was tired of continually feeling like I was starting over. I said all this without taking the camera away from my eye. It probably looked like I was waiting to take a picture of her reaction, but I just liked the fact that in the viewfinder, mom looked smaller and further away and I guess that gave me enough emotional distance to speak my mind. Apparently I’m my father’s child, too.
I kept watching her through the camera as she asked me if I remembered when she used to get me those big books of mazes. I did. She asked what I would do if I started following a line that I later realized was a dead-end – would I keep going, knowing it didn’t go anywhere? No. She said that’s how she felt about life. Once you know you’re not in the right place, why continue down that path?
I told her that moving two blocks over, year after year, wasn’t changing the path, it was more like just changing the color of the pen. I told her that life, to me, seemed more like a Word Search, where you’ve got a mess of options and you’ve got to find what you need somewhere in the chaos. Moving every year felt like repeatedly starting a new puzzle and never finishing the last. I watched the tiny version of her in the viewfinder turn and smile. I finally snapped the picture.
Mom stepped down from the coffee table and rested the paintbrush on the rim of the can. She admitted that was probably a better analogy, but said she never liked Word Searches. It always frustrated her that someone had the hubris to call it a Word Search and not allow words that weren’t on the list. What made their list so special? Why was finding something different deemed worthless when it was just as hard to find as the ones from the list? She was trying to find her own way in the world, and she didn’t appreciate being told she was doing part of it wrong. She emphasized that she was speaking of Word Searches, not my complaint.
It was a convoluted analogy, but it gave me an insight into my mother that I’d never had. I’m embarrassed to admit that for some time, I’d mistaken her optimism for obliviousness. I wanted her to look around and admit that things were shitty, that this new apartment wasn’t a step up, and that we’d been dealt a crap hand and we didn’t have the chips to bluff our way out of it. But she wouldn’t admit that because it wasn’t how she saw it. She never thought of the moves as starting over – it was still her and me, and she never looked at apartments outside my school district. She thought a new perspective and a fresh coat of paint was a simple way to make the steady things feel fresh, and I’m reminded of that every time I look at that picture.
I should note that it’s not her favorite picture. We have a little ritual around it – she sees it in my room and complains that it makes her look fat. I assure her that the camera adds ten pounds, and she asks how many cameras I used to take the photo. I almost always say one.
© 2016 WPReagan. This is one story in the 2016 series, Everyday Stories: 30 Tales in 30 Days Inspired by 30 Stranger’s Photographs.