I was sitting at my desk, narrowing my bleary eyes at the flickering light of the monitor and mumbling into the phone at my sister. The kids had finally drifted off to sleep, and I was preparing to sort through my email and compile a massive batch of old photographs.
I’d cooked up this idea to make a photo book for my Mom’s 60th birthday party. You know, one of those massive coffee-table-sized photo books that doubles as a paperweight or murder weapon in a pinch. It was a biography, chronicling her from birth to grandmother and all the years between. My sister, who still lived with my parents, was playing secret agent by day. She was wading through the dusty, decaying old albums of family photos and smuggling pictures off to the copy center, scanning and emailing them while my mom was at work. I was staring at the attachments in my inbox now.
“Where are the rest of them? There’s like five files here. Are they in another email I don’t have yet?”
There was a strange silence on the other end.
“Umm…that’s all of them,” my sister replied.
“What do you mean? You couldn’t find the other albums?”
“No,” she responded firmly. “I found them. But those are all the pictures there are of Mom. Unless you have more, that’s it.”
I was stunned. Sixty years of a life full of marriages and children, laughter and loss. She was the most important woman in the world to me, but the photographic evidence of her existence didn’t even exceed the maximum attachment file size of a single email. I looked closely at the photos of a grinning toddler in a red Flyer wagon, a prom photo of a whisper of a smile in a blue velvet dress. There was a woman with curly hair and dimples who I remembered well, her face pressed close to my gap-toothed grin. This handful of photos seemed so meager compared to the space she had filled in my life.
The further ahead I looked, the bigger the empty space grew. There was an entire decade of her life in which we had only four photos of her. She was never fond of having her picture taken, always shirking from the frame with excuses about her hair. And often she was on the other side of the lens, creating a record of the memories we’d cherish later. But as I looked through the photographic pieces of our life together, I was struck by what was missing. She had been there for every award ceremony, packed every lunch, applied every Band-Aid, and yet, in these pictures she was gone—reduced to nothing more than a ghost standing just over my shoulder, whispering lovingly in my ear.
When I went to bed that night, I lay awake for a long time, thinking about what my own kids might see if they were to page through our family photos. And I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that they might have a very similar experience. They’d have to search long and hard for pictures of our faces filling the same frame. There would only be a handful, carefully posed and taken at specific moments. It wouldn’t be the mom they loved, that wild-haired pajama-clad woman who preferred a sneer to a smile. If I continued along the same path as my own mother, I’d leave very little evidence behind that the mom my kids knew had existed at all.
I cobbled the book together as best I could, and when it came time to choose the cover, the answer was obvious. I’d entitled the book “A Life in Pictures” with my mom’s name as a subtitle. But there was really only one photo I wanted to put on the front. It’s an old, blurry, bleached-out shot in tones of sepia. My mom is sitting at a table in a kitchen, flowered wallpaper behind her. I think my sister and I decided she’s likely about 17 in the picture, brown hair flowing down her back in gentle waves. You can’t see her face because she’s lowered it toward the tabletop and screened herself from view with her hands, interlaced in front of her forehead. You can see a long stretch of bare arm, the glint of a watch—clues of a woman but never the whole story. This is the way I know her best, hidden from view, always at a distance. I’ll spend my whole life longing for her to look up from that photo and smile at me so that I can see the mother I know.
A few weeks later, I snapped a pic of my daughter and I as she snuggled in my lap. It was definitely not my finest personal hygiene moment. Pajama-clad with messy hair and face still swollen from sleep, we stared into the lens without censure. And I did something I’d never done before—I posted that messy, imperfect photo on Facebook with a comment encouraging other mothers to do the same.
The response was overwhelming.
My mom friends posted their makeup-free selfies with their kids, tagging me in the comments, glad to simply share a slice of life that was real and meaningful. I think we all began to recognize that if we want our kids to be confident, we’re going to have to practice a little self-acceptance in front of the lens. My mother remains a ghost in the photographic memories of my childhood, but I’m determined not to pull the same vanishing act.