My father insisted on having the picture blown up and framed. He hung it in our small living room, above the television. Every time people came over, he’d tell them to check out the masterpiece, that it was published in a fancy magazine, taken by none other than his brilliant daughter. I’d blush and wait for him to finish singing my praises before slipping back into my bedroom. I leaned the picture against the front of the sofa and took a few steps back. There was a glare from the lamp light, but the picture was still crisp, clear. I could feel myself standing on that mountain looking out at the water as I prepared to take the shot. My legs shook. My hands were sweaty. But there was nothing better than getting lost in the process—studying the scene, analyzing the light, imagining in great depth what I might capture as I looked through that lens.
“Wow,” I whispered. I wanted to be back there, back inside that world of photography free to create, to capture nature’s wonders.
I moved to the hall closet and started pulling out plastic bins. I dug through each one looking for old pictures, the plastic-wrapped magazines my pictures were published. There were postcards from Tiffany when she studied abroad in Paris, my father’s ceramic turtles, beaded necklaces given to me by a girl I babysat senior year, sewing thread and needles I used to sew missing buttons on second-hand shirts and blazers when I was in law school, and yards of fabric folded into neat squares but no pictures.
Upstairs in my bedroom closet were more bins. There I found eight photo albums and ten to fifteen loose sleeves. I laughed at the handwritten labels, organized by month and year. In a small soapbox I found memory cards. A sealed box housed my cameras, each one more expensive and sophisticated than the previous one. I held each one up in its clear plastic bag and smiled. Then I moved on to the photo albums, retracing my growth as a budding photographer. I laughed and cried, memories swarming like bees in my mind. I ignored hunger pangs, time’s long and short hands, and the low hum of panic. The pictures came alive like fractured moments on a reel, streaming excitement I hadn’t known in years. When I finished going through the last album, I turned to the magazines. Each one had pink tabs marking the pages with my pictures. My eyes welled with pride. In the last magazine, between the thick, glossy pages was a water-stained envelope. I pulled out the folded letter and began reading.
To my sweet girl:
How surprised was I when I saw your picture in Light magazine? I know it’s been a long time, but I want you to know that I love you and think about you all the time. I’m sure you have a lot of questions. My number is below. I’d love to hear from you.
And just like that, the happiness I felt waned, opening the door to a wave of suffocating disappointment. I put the letter back into the envelope and went downstairs to the kitchen. After making myself a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, I moved out to the patio to sit and soak up the early afternoon sun, hoping the caffeine would force thoughts about my mother back into their dark hole.
I was hungry for a mother, the woman who, the day after giving birth, left the hospital and sent my father divorce papers a month later. Her letter came a few months after The Fall appeared in the magazine. The long, white envelope arrived without a return address, my name and address written in fancy lettering.
“Do you remember her?” Tiffany asked when I showed her the letter.
“I never met her…she left when I was born.”
“Wow…” Tiffany sat on my bed with her mouth open and her eyes wide. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know…part of me wants to call,” I sat down across from Tiffany. “I want to know why she left us…left me.”
The woman on the other end of the phone spoke fast in a detached, customer service kind of way. I twirled the phone cord, waiting for my turn to speak, which never came. It was decided that I would meet her after school the following day at her office. Tiffany agreed to join me. She told her parents she was staying after school, and I told my dad the same.
We took the 22 bus to the downtown area and then walked the rest of the way, twelve blocks—half restored Victorians, half high-rise buildings.
“What are you going to say?” Tiffany asked.
“I don’t know,” I kept walking, my backpack straps digging into my shoulders.
On 66thth Avenue we eyed both sides of the street looking for a building with the numbers 1111. It was tucked between two taller buildings, its small, north and south windows facing steel walls, its east and west windows facing one-way streets filled with angry commuters. Straus & Meyers Legal Services was stained on the glass doors. Tiffany and I walked into the meticulous entryway where we were greeted by a man in a gray suit.
“How can I help you ladies?” He asked, half chuckling to appeal to our youth.
“We’re here to see Sophia Smith,” I looked over at Tiffany.
“Oh,” he stepped back. “I see. I will call up and let her know.”
Tiffany and I paced until the elevator opened and out stepped a woman who looked to be an older version of me.
“Sabina,” she squealed and rushed towards me with her arms open, her high heels scraping against the shiny, marble floor. “Look at you…Scott, look,” she pointed at me. “Mini me,” she laughed. Scott nodded, feigning interest.
“Hi,” I whispered. “This is my friend…”
“Yeah, yeah. I see you brought a friend…let me look at you,” she motioned for me to spin around. “I see you get some things from your father,” she laughed.
I was started to think the visit was a bad idea, but when she invited us up to her office I agreed. On the way to her office she gave us a tour, noting all the contributions she had made to the company, bragging that without her they’d be nothing. Once inside her office, Tiffany and I sat across from her while she talked to us like were interviewing for a position and this was the part where she sold us on why her firm was the best. She went on and on until our blank stares and disinterest unnerved her.
“So, have you ever thought about being a lawyer?” She leaned back in her swivel chair.
“No,” Tiffany and I said in unison.
“Let me guess,” my mother crossed her arms. “You want to be a photographer?”
“Don’t they go crazy and kill themselves?” Sophia smirked.
“I think you’re talking about painters…like Vincent van Gogh,” Tiffany defended.
“Do they make a lot of money?” Sophia ignored Tiffany. “Do they help people?”
“How?” Sophia put her elbows on the table and leaned in, her face in her hands, expressionless.
The longer she stared the smaller I felt.
“You should think about becoming a lawyer,” she broke the silence. “I think you’d be good at it.”
She talked more about what her position entailed, more about her accomplishments, some of which were displayed on the wall through framed pictures and awards.
“Oh,” she broke from talking about herself. “How’s your dad?”
“He’s fine,” I lied.
“Really?” she teased. “I thought for sure the heart failure…”
“Um, we have to go now,” Tiffany interrupted. She grabbed my hand and I followed her to the door.
“Oh, okay…well, it was nice to finally meet you baby girl. Let’s do this again,” she stayed seated but let her chair swivel back and forth. “Just the two of us…”
“Okay,” I said, ashamed that even a tiny part of me wanted to see her again.
It was the absence of her that made longing feel like an incurable disease I had contracted at birth. We met in secret not as mother and daughter, but more like mentor and mentee. She made sure I had enough reading material – law school brochures and legal magazines and journals. I grew to accept the pop quizzes and the jabs to my ego. As I sat on my patio now the manipulation was clear, but I wasn’t sure I could have convinced my younger self.
“So, you’re giving up on photography completely?” my father asked.
“Yep,” I packed everything away in boxes and bins.
“Why not do both?”
“Because,” I said, flustered by his persistence.
The real reason was much more sinister.
“Do you want me in your life or not?” Sophia had asked over lunch one day.
“I do…” I said, fearing she might disappear again.
“Then put the camera down and get serious about your future.”
So, I did. I studied, did what she said, and she praised me for being her model student.
Our visits continued through law school. She was my cheerleader, or at least that’s how I interpreted the nagging and insults. She just wants the best for me, I thought. I didn’t see anything wrong with the woman who had given birth to me pushing me to follow in her footsteps. In the process I hoped she might say she loved me, tell me she wished she had never left me. Instead the more like her I became, the more frequent the verbal lashings occurred. She needed me to be like her, but she hated herself so I took the brunt of her self-contempt, always willing to shrug it off in hopes that if I just proved to her how much I loved her and needed her she would accept me.
“I’m so glad we’re both going to lawyers,” she said to me in a phone call a day before my graduation. “Tell your father that I won,” she laughed. “He said you would never turn out like me, guess he was wrong.”
“Yeah, that old dad of yours, during the child support hearing, said he wouldn’t let you turn out like me. He wanted you to be a loser like him,” she laughed again, the fake fluctuations noticeable.
“He did the best he could,” I said, knowing this was a trigger for her.
“Oh really…is that why when we met you had no goals?”
“I had goals.”
“You call taking pictures a goal? Anybody can take pictures. I can take pictures…and better. You think that magazine printed your picture because you’re good?” she paused as if she expected me to answer but then kept talking. “Wrong! They did it because they pitied the teenage, motherless girl being raised by a father who never amounted to anything and was on his way to an early grave. That’s why.” She paused again, something in her background grabbing her attention. “I saved you, remember that.”
“Why are you so angry? I’m going to be a lawyer…” I tried to diffuse the situation.
“I have to go…my daughter needs me.”
“What?” Her words were like steel beams crashing down on me.
“I need to focus on my daughter,” her tone was matter of fact.
“I’m your daughter too…” I heard her clear her throat and then hang up the phone.