Recently my sister, Buffy, sorted through a box of old old pictures and came upon one taken of our aunt, Imy, in about 1924 on the day she graduated from high school. She is dark-haired and serious in the photo, wearing her cap and gown in the same pose that every graduate seems to assume. What sets this photo apart is that when Buffy took another look at it she noticed a little figure in the shadows that she hadn’t seen before, despite having looked at the photo dozens of times over the years.
When she enlarged the photo, an image of our mother, Betty, became clear. She is less than three years old (she and Imy were more than 15 years apart in age), and she is digging in her sand box. Her face is in profile, and she is clearly working very diligently with her little shovel.
I find the photo haunting because I know the expression on her face, and saw it many times on the grown-up version of Betty. To see it, you had to catch her unaware because if she knew you were watching her, she would turn and smile or make a joke. To catch her in a deeper moment, you had to sneak up on her. And both Buffy and I caught on early that our mother’s thoughts went to a place that only she could reach regardless of how skillfully we tiptoed up in back of her.
I have many pictures of our mother taken throughout her rather remarkable life. They range from standard grin-and-grabs of her accepting awards or congratulations, to photos of her holding up strings of fish, little dogs, or new babies. My own personal favorite of her is a candid one that she hated that was taken decades ago. She is at a national convention wearing a teddy bear costume complete with ears and a red neck bow, and she is trying to smoke a cigarette without being noticed.
But the unnoticed baby in the sand box in the shadows that my sister rediscovered quite by accident is truly my mother — our mother — and it breaks my heart but I don’t know why. If I could, I would like to warn her of something, although I’m not sure what.
I can chant the litany now of what heartbreaks she herself would encounter later on, including some that I brought home and shared. But I also know that she survived, as did we all.
So I look at the baby in the sand box. If I watch long enough, I imagine I can see her hand begin to descend as she fills the shovel one more time and continues to dig where we can’t see.