My mother was 27 years old when I was born and stubbornly stayed 27 years older than me the rest of her life. By the time I was a young adult, she was middle-aged. By the time I was middle-aged, she neared retirement. At age 66, cancer took her away from us.
For years, whenever I’ve looked at pictures of my mother when she was a girl, teenager, or young married, I’ve seen only my older mother impersonating a younger woman. I’ve had trouble connecting with the sweet, shy girl with soft brown eyes, the bi-lingual daughter of German immigrants, making her uncertain way through youth into a wider and wider world toward an undefined future. Knowing how her life turned out, I can’t help but overlay the more finished self onto the images of her emerging self.
In an attempt to swipe away the filter of her later life as I contemplate her earlier one, I decided to line up photos of her at various ages with photos of my sister and me at the same ages—all of us at 1 year old, all of us at 3 years old, and so on up the line. It was the best idea I could come up with for narrowing that 27-year gap. If I stared at my sister and me at 21, say, remembering like yesterday how each of us was on the edge of new beginnings—Lori just married and moving halfway across the country, me getting ready for a year abroad halfway across the world—could I then look immediately at my mother at the same age and imagine in that face the same kind of excitement and uncertainty about her recent marriage and their unfolding plans to move to California the next year?
That was the goal, anyway—to harness memories of my sister’s and my inner lives at particular ages and then impute the same for my mother, whose image would be right next to ours. Did it work? I’ll let the photos speak first.
Left-to-right in each row is Martha (my mother) - Linda (me) - Lori (my younger sister)
1 year old
3 years old
5 years old
15 years old
18 years old
21 years old
30 years old
37 years old
46 years old
53 years old
59 years old
65 years old
Just working on the pictures—selecting, scanning, cropping, and adjusting exposure and color balance—brought me closer to the young Martha and the young Lori. Hours of staring—I at them and them at me—led to quiet exchanges of recognition and empathy, some of them going quite deep.
The photo that had the most effect on me was the one of my mother at 15. I was gobsmacked by her vulnerability, her gentleness, and, wow!, her beauty, especially those lips, and again those brown eyes. She wasn’t a girl anymore, but not fully adult either—she’s perfectly balanced between the two. She’s delicate, but I also see a budding confidence. My sister and I look sportier by comparison, but that doesn’t mean I can’t remember all the tangles in my brain as I tried to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be.
This photo of my mother at 15 helped me imagine her as a teenager for the first time, and it guided me to her as an 18- and then 21-year-old without the future-mom filter getting in the way. It wasn’t a far leap from there to her at age 30. I could see much more clearly the young put-together woman who knew she was done having kids and was intent on raising the family she’d created.
Have I generated enough velocity to completely escape the fixed orbit I’ve followed around my mother and her memory all these years? I would say no, but it feels like the smooth path has been disturbed. I’m still circling her, but I’m starting to see angles, lights and shadows, peaks and valleys I’d never noticed before.
Because I grew up memorizing Bible verses, sometimes stray lines come to me without any effort on my part. These last few weeks, I’ve kept hearing, “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then we shall see face to face.” I looked it up and, to my surprise, found that a more famous verse comes right after it, one that I’d never before associated with the face-to-face part, but I get it: “And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:12-13).