This is how I like to remember my mother, the time when I was most in love with her, when I did not know that I would become a stranger to her in just a couple of years—the pupal stage on the path to adulthood, the destruction of the past in order to become the future–you did know that ‘pupa’ is Latin for ‘doll’–confirmation that this time is a special one. It is the time when boys are closest to their mothers; they’re growing up, but they’re still a child. A balance between one, being a man and the other, a child. It only occurs this one time in their lives and it is the time that I cherish the most.
I’ve always felt that this period coincided with the second flowering of my mother’s beauty, the other time being in her late teens, so long ago that I don’t think she believed it had happened, if she did she would never have admitted it, at least not out loud. She was modest about her beauty, although I would catch her sometimes pushing her hair up off her neck in the way women do when assessing their looks, judging the length of their neck and how it delicately holds their head, just so.
When I remember my mother during these few years before our estrangement—this break did not dim our love for one another, but it did shift the balance of power ever so slightly; I would find her looking at me as if I were an alien, the look accompanied — or perhaps tempered by — a sense of wonder at the mysteries of raising a child and perhaps those teen years are exactly that: your child becomes a stranger living in your house, you, the parent, of course, still love them, but it takes more energy, perhaps even a more thoughtful approach to navigate and guide your charge—I see her tall and thin; I had definite ideas about how she should dress, or what clothes she possessed that were my favorite. She was kind enough to ask my opinion as if it mattered to her.
At this particular moment, she’s wearing what I considered the look that most resembled her character, how I felt about her and what she meant to me at that time. It was a cowgirl, ranch wife-typical-day-on-the-spread-outfit (Barbara Stanwyck in ‘The Big Valley’ on TV): white shirt with pearl buttons and French cuffs, with her beautiful Navajo turquoise, coral, and silver Thunderhead pin positioned just below her throat—the part that men like to kiss and little boys like to lay their heads against. Women must like how that feels otherwise why would they advertise its availability so often? Finishing it off with gabardine slacks, the front pockets cut square, a leather belt with a silver tip, and boots.
She walked differently when she was dressed this way, it was more confident, less feminine, not that she lost her ability to flirt when she wore these clothes, but I know that she felt more on equal footing with men when she did. As her boy-child I had no choice but to admire (perhaps emulate) this change in her character based on what she was wearing; a lesson you might be inclined to store for future use. It is what learning is all about, is it not? The ability to process and consume information for its possible future use, use that comes naturally, sometimes even as a surprise, “how did I know that?” you might even ask yourself ten, twenty years later.
Sometimes it was hard for me to share her. Clouds would storm my face when someone would get between us, these shadows of emotions flying low over the prairie-colored face of a spoiled child so quickly and so harshly I often lost my breath, my balance, my mind. My mercurial nature embarrassed me, but it seemed, at the time, that it was something I had no control over and perhaps I might not have wanted to have control over it–that lack of control was a knife that I could wield with surgeon-like precision, not that it was premeditated, I don’t believe I would have thought to be that manipulative, but the results usually benefited me in some way, enough to make my tongue hang out in anticipation of the bell, Pavlov.
This time and place then; we are at the Stratobowl, outside of Rapid City. The date tells me that Mary is still living with us, but I’m not sure that Mary is taking this photograph. It’s not that there weren’t many happy times with Mary; we’re often photographed in full-throated laughter, mouths open, teeth showing, and the sheen of pleasure sparkling in our eyes during the years she and my mother lived together. As serious as Mary was about preparing for life, or what life might throw at you, she also was a prankster, her honking laugh one I still hear, should I stop and listen for it. But it’s just as likely that it was just me and my mother alone, having asked a stranger to take our picture with our little brownie box camera, a certain freedom allowed in front of someone you may never meet again.
“Shall we go for a drive?” my mother would ask after Sunday dinner, the one day of the week we had our ‘big’ meal at midday, a habit that her mother and step-father always observed every day of the week, a light supper served later in the evening. And we’d pile into the car and head out into the Hills with no destination in mind. Someone might say, “let’s go out old highway 16 up to the lake and back,” or “we haven’t been down to Hermosa lately, let’s go see what’s doing down there.” These excursions a time for talking about school, friends, family, or nothing at all, just a time to be together without having a responsibility to anyone but ourselves. It is the blessing of being an only child of a single parent.
I did not know that I had already used up one third of my time with my mother in 1962. What child at that age considers the future? It is too large to comprehend and the past is too small to bear its weight. It is enough to manage your now; it may be the one time in your life when you are living in the moment. There is, of course, that nasty thing called “learning the lesson that your actions have consequences” which becomes a more frequent refrain at this point in your life, only because you are beginning to have just the slightest interest in the future as it applies to your comfort. And so this moment is now, when a mother and her son shared their love for each other and stopped it forever with a photograph.