Over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been a part of life for millions. In “How We Remember Them” we reflect on how we process loss and the things – tangible and intangible – that remind us of those we have lost.
It’s a picture frame, a hideous orange-brown plastic, a product of the 1970s, bought at Kmart or Zayre or some other store that closed decades ago. These stores offered bargains, blue light specials, and a financial reprieve to struggling single mothers and unlucky families.
I’m no more than three in the photos that are held together with tape in the frame that’s almost as old as me, 47. There are 10 pictures in total. When I remove the back of the frame, I see the handwriting of my adoptive mother, Esther. It indicates who, when and sometimes where from the image. I star in several and play a supporting role in others, alongside Esther, my adoptive brother, my biological brother, my grandmother, and a variety of inanimate objects that helped define who I was: an eye patch that earned me the nickname “pirate”, a baby doll dress that serves as my hat, a pair of yellow sunglasses and a wooden dog that I pulled with a string.
I wear everything from a hat with an E for ‘Everett’ – the town we used to live in – to a sunny yellow bathing suit proclaiming I’m ‘Miss America’, to a towel my adoptive mother cut in half. to create more, so it didn’t seem like we had less. I remember bathing suits being one of my favorites, as were all the bathing suits I collected throughout my youth to wear on vacations by the lake my adoptive mother saved all year. As I walked through the kitchen, I asked Esther if I was the prettiest. I needed her to reassure me not about how I looked but about how much she loved me. I needed to know that she wouldn’t leave me like my birth mother had.
In the pictures, my story looks at me from so many places.
There’s my adoptive mother’s kitchen, which has a faux brick floor made of cheap linoleum, installed by the housing project where Esther raised her three biological children and her two adopted children, me and my brother. . She often struggles longer to pay her rent on the wall-mounted push-button telephone as she smokes cigarettes, a thin veil of vapor rising from her mouth and rising above her head. I imagine she spits fire on the bureaucratic heads of the housing administration, who wear sensitive bifocal shoes with orthopedic support bought by sensitive wives with names like Brenda and Margaret.
In the kitchen, I sit in front of the white cupboard where my adoptive mother stored non-perishable groceries. We pulled things out and whipped up culinary creations when we were bored. None of them were edible, but the birds had less noticeable palates and enjoyed our impromptu meals when we left them out on the porch.
It’s also in the kitchen that I hang out with the eye patch that I wore for a good part of my childhood. I remember how my eyebrow hairs stuck to the adhesive of the patch as I ripped it off and watched my view of the world go from half to full.
In the one photo in the collage that doesn’t represent me, there is a rare moment of camaraderie between the women who raised me, my adoptive mother and my biological grandmother. They are both smiling, as my adoptive brother looks on, and I wonder if the smiles were genuine or forced.
My grandmother’s jealousy of Esther became something that bred resentment on my part and that of my adoptive mother. It was Esther who took us on weekends, during storms, after school, and during childless vacations that my grandparents often took. I always wondered why it was so difficult for my grandmother to understand why Esther and I were so close. It was something to celebrate, I thought, that the little parentless girl trusted and loved someone who loved her back.
In several photos, I’m in the basement that was used as a playroom, with a toy box and a makeshift kitchen with lawn chairs and a prime location under the stairs. It was conveniently located across from the washer and dryer. Once I caught my sock on a nail on the third step and tumbled across the wide gap between the steps and the railing and hit my body on the pavement floor. I only remember the feel of my sock when it caught on the nail and the cold ground when it met my cheek.
In the underground playground of poured concrete and bland blue walls, we build fantasy worlds where we’re mothers or movie stars or hairdressers, but I always have to be the pretty one or the popular girl. No one leaves the beautiful and the beloved.
In these imaginaries that I create with friends, I am not a little girl with an eye patch whose parents abandoned her when she was a baby. I am Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Blondie. I am Miss America. My bathing suit says so.
In another photo in the collage is the snow fort where I played with the Blood Bound Brother after the infamous Blizzard of ’78. The winter storm was a historic and horrific blizzard that left the US city of Boston incapacitated in February of that year, dropping more than two feet (0.6 m) of snow in less than 32 hours with snowdrifts up to 15 feet (4.6 m). It came on the heels of another big storm that dropped a significant amount of snow. The snow fort was big enough for us to fit in.
It’s hard to imagine my adoptive mother in the snow capturing our magical winter oasis built just outside the living room window. One of his children, my non-biological siblings, must have taken the picture.
Somehow my foster sisters – Beth and Sue – aren’t in any photos and are missing. It’s the only thing that bothers me about this article that allows me to travel so easily to the past. A plastic-covered time machine given to me by my adoptive mother who is long gone, along with my grandmother and my mother.
With the frame comes more than images, more than me at three. It’s a reminder of my past, my origin story. I was the little girl taken in by a woman who already had three children of her own. The one whose mother and father struggled with drug addiction so they couldn’t care for her or her brother.
It is a reminder of the woman who became my mother, without giving birth to me, without sharing my blood. While my grandmother threw away photos to hide or forget the past, my adoptive mother documented my childhood. I am grateful, especially now after his death.
In the 1970s, recording life’s moments was an arduous process. First, Esther took the pictures, which meant buying the film, loading the camera, and then having the images developed. I remember going to local Kodak photo booths in malls when I was young. We put the film in an envelope and gave it to the attendant. A few days later, we came back as if an eternity had passed to find out what images had developed.
Once the photos were developed, Esther would have bought the frame. It was probably done on one of our trips to the store where she browsed the aisles while smoking a cigarette and looking for sales.
When we got home, I imagine she laid out the pictures on the kitchen table and taped them together, then affixed them to the hard plastic protective frame. Before that, she tagged them with the date and place like “the cellar” or the time, “The blizzard of 78”.
I hear the sound of the tape as she pulls the last part of the roll out of it and swears, furious at having to put her project aside and pursue it another day. I smell the smoke from his cigarette mingling with the Avon brand perfume, a faint powdery scent that I will still smell when I go to college in the late 1990s, long after he died of a growing brain tumor. aggressive that doctors discover too late. I don’t remember the name of the perfume or the type of tumor.
These photos and the memories they contain like gifts are my past. While she was alive, Esther told me about each of them, regaling me with stories about who I once was. Each image is a snapshot of a time when life was less complicated than it is now. I often look at these photos when I need comfort. In them I find security and a reminder that I once belonged to someone as my children now belong to me.
The cracked frame must be replaced. Its plastic body is broken from years of use and the many moves it has endured after following me through college, my first apartment, and finally my dream home.
Each image tells a story.
Although I know it’s time to transfer the images to a new album or collage frame, I can’t. With everything that has changed in my life, especially since the pandemic, this thing has to stay the same.
It’s not just a collage of images with memories, it’s a common thread to my past. It’s a tool I use to tell my children about my mother, a woman they’ve never met. It’s also a way for them to see who their mother was – once upon a time – and it’s a way for me to share my life with them and create another generation of memories.
That’s how I remember I had a mother even though she wasn’t mine by blood and biology and she loved me enough to preserve my childhood, our past, so I could keep forever.