For my Mother
The day of my mother’s birth was not auspicious. January second, at the start of the Great Depression. She was a breech birth, and no one liked to give birth in the hospital back then because according to my grandpa, “People go to the hospital to die.” Even though mom was delivered safely, she always hated her birthday because everyone returned to work or school, and the Christmas trees were out back ready for the burn barrel along with the wrinkled, discarded trappings of the holidays.
Usually it was snowing by then, too late for a white Christmas in this part of Pennsylvania. But the gray sharp coldness of the new year did not seem like a celebration anymore. It was just something to get through until spring.
It didn’t matter that grandma always took a picture of mom, muffled in coat and scarf and mittens outside, holding a two-layer chocolate cake with the appropriate number of candles. When she was little, mom looked elfin, like someone Santa had left behind, but she smiled. As she got older, the sepia toned photos were more than a growth record. If you looked around, the trees changed, some cut down, new bushes planted, shutters on the house, but never colors. One time, my great grandmother was captured in the birthday photo, peeking around the front porch, bundled in her cloaks, bonnet, and button boots, a striped cat winding itself around her short legs. No doubt she didn’t realize she was in the picture.
Mom told me she liked that picture.
When she began school, it didn’t matter if it snowed twenty-inches on her birthday because one-room schools didn’t mark snow days. Ever. Either you got there, or you didn’t, and despite later family jokes about trudging uphill in a blizzard (both ways), it really was a mile to the little schoolhouse. There were plenty of trees and farmhouses, but the village of Penryn was on a hill, so the spaces between let the wind howl viciously, and I imagine mom resembled a pale popsicle when she got to the school yard. I don’t think the inside would have been much warmer, but since the pupils sat packed together like tiny Q-tips in a new box, they probably kept each other warm.
Mom was a slight child, dark-haired but not scrawny. Shy, but clever. Quiet, but always listening. She spoke about the friends who lived nearby, but I have the sense she was lonely. I can’t say why. I just feel it. Other than the birthday pictures, I only remember one other photo of her as a child sitting in a little wicker rocking chair. She wasn’t smiling but glancing just away from the camera’s lens as though she was told to sit still for a while. She looked as though she was being very obedient.
When I was small, I asked mom who the little girl was in the photo was. I didn’t believe it was my mother. It didn’t think it looked anything like her. She couldn’t have been more than six years old because I used to sit in that little rocker myself. Mom had on a smocked light-colored school dress, ankle socks and t-strap patent leather shoes. Her dark hair was trimmed in a bob that was combed neatly. Finally, I realized it was the glasses. She didn’t get them until high school, and she said when she first got them, she walked into the school auditorium and exclaimed, “There are seats over there!” Her eyesight must have been terrible. I wonder how long she scrunched up her eyes to see. Could she see the trees down Penryn Road as she walked to school?