Photography with Words

“My Ten-Year-Old Mother”

I had a dream once, before I was a teenager, that my mother turned into a ten-year-old girl right before my eyes. I saw her through a keyhole, on the edge of a place I wasn’t allowed to go. Suddenly, she motioned to me, to follow her up a dusty stairwell, to go find hidden objects in the attic that beckoned to us both. We were about the same age then, my mother and me, the year of the dream somewhere around 1990 but set back in time around 1960.

We were in the place she had grown up in, an old house next to some railroad tracks in southern Indiana. Every night I ever stayed there, trains came through and woke me up in my sleep, and I’m sure this dream was full of the sound of wheels clunking on steel, at night, right outside the window. The house was huge and built just after the Civil War by my mother’s people, North Carolina Quakers and Irish coalminers. Like so many of those old houses, especially the bigger ones, the twisting corridor leading upstairs was shut off by doors on both ends, mostly to prevent a draft, but after decades of disuse, to effectively close off the past and let the things stored there gather the dust they needed to be important to us again.

I was bored and poking around the house that day, the day I had the dream. I tried to open the door and go upstairs, where my grandmother warned us never to go. She caught me. I tried again. She got annoyed and told my brother and me to sit down at the dinner table (my somewhat Southern, part-Indian grandmother, named Virginia after the state, a trace of the old accent surviving on her breath). She had lost most of her toes to diabetes, so she scared us by taking off her socks and showing us her feet, telling us not to walk upstairs where she couldn’t go after us, and to have pity on an old woman. (When she died, her two surviving toes poked out from underneath the sheet on the hospital bed in a funny Churchill-like flourish, a sign, we thought, of victory and peace). Then, after she’d scolded us, she gave us chocolate milk and told us both to go outside and play.

That night, I think, was when I dreamed about my mother walking up those steps. She was ten, then, and beckoned to me through the keyhole to open that door, against my grandmother’s wishes. She had pigtails, a big gap in her teeth, and wore a polka-dotted dress, pure 1950’s elementary school fashion. She could have won a part in To Kill A Mockingbird with Gregory Peck. (In my dream, something about the whole house became residual and Deep Southern.) Looking through the keyhole, I saw my ten-year-old mother all in black and white, her hands motioning me to turn the knob and come see what was up there, to not worry, that she would be my mother one day and approved of this adventure.

I turned the doorknob. She walked around the bend in the stairs at the bottom of the landing, just as I came through the doorway, then went on ahead of me. I looked up. She stood there at the top, keeping away from me, silhouetted against an overexposed background. I climbed the dusty, dirty stairs, she disappeared behind a closed door, and I found a basketful of old black-and-white photographs where she had been standing. For a second, I thought she had become the photographs. Then I looked through another keyhole. She was in her room, writing or drawing something with a crayon on paper, delicately and dreamily, I thought, not looking at me anymore. I had no idea what she was drawing, but the image of her was so intense, I woke up right away.

A year or two later, when my grandmother died (I was about thirteen then), I found out what that drawing was.

I remember nothing directly about my grandfather. He died when I was three. He was a sign-painter and postmaster, a talented small-town Midwestern artist. Though he was too old to be a fighting soldier during World War II, he painted U.S. and British warplanes in New Guinea and Australia. I think he became a religious man only after the war, when he came back to Indiana and married my Baptist grandmother (a pleasant but, as my mother remembers, less humorous person than her husband Gerald). During the war, he kept an address book of Australian girls he was fooling around with and probably could have married. He brought back two lockets holding photographs of one of them. In New Guinea and the Philippines, photographs show him painting pictures of buxom, flirtatious, blond nurses, the propaganda of their breasts somehow reminding soldiers to “take their atabrin” and quinine, treatment he ended up taking for the rest of his life after contracting malaria in New Guinea.

His family had been Quakers from Carolina, big-eared blacksmiths, ruddy long-nosed square-jawed carpenters, people who worked with their hands. So did he. One evening around 1960, I guess, he sat my mother against a windowsill in Indiana, put his hand on her chin and tilted it down a ways, told her to close her eyes, then picked up a charcoal pencil and started to draw. In the picture he made, she had pigtails and was wearing a polka-dotted dress, a mischievous, happy girl lost for a moment in reverie. My grandfather was a funny man, but I think he must have been immensely thoughtful, too, having lost his father at age thirteen, at the height of the Great Depression, to a coal mine, and his own thirteen-year-old son to sickness, on his birthday. I wonder if he didn’t make a portrait of my mother after her brother died, to console her.

I never saw the image until a few years after the dream, when we were cleaning out the old house, getting ready to sell it out of the family for the first time since it was built in the 1870’s. Upstairs, my parents found old tintypes of the blacksmith I was named for (we had never seen his face), hundreds of black-and-white photographs in baskets, crayon drawings, enough napkins and stamps to buy a car or pay for a funeral, silver coins from Australia with Queen Victoria and George V on them, a machete brought back from the South Pacific, a “safari hat,” lewd pictures of Filipino tribeswomen. Then, in what had once been her bedroom in the attic, my mother tore a tacky picture out of a tacky frame and discovered a beautiful hand-made drawing of herself stuffed in behind it, signed by her father and used as matting. She blacked out and almost fell down the stairs.

Just as I had dreamed it, a ten-year-old girl had been hiding in the attic all along.