You brought the photographs over and spread them on the table.
The ones I remembered. The ones that used to hang in the hallway just outside my bedroom door, somewhere between my name carved in the dense, cabin wood and the collage you made from torn magazine pages. And there, between the hardened glue, yellowing with time, a movement of women caught on film, dusty gray words still smoldering. 1976. Women. Liberation. Awaken. And one girl, in the corner of the page, chrome soaked hair, bare muscles flexed, open mouth scream, silenced behind the glass.
And some days, I would sit under your collage and read each word, search inside its heavy frame. I wondered if those pictures were what freedom looked like. If bravery was an arm lifted into the sky, like a wing searching for its wind. Or if bravery was a tear tracing the journey of a young girl over cheek rouged with fight. And I could almost hear your voice trying to get out from behind the glass.
And I think I fell in love with you, right then, right there, under your heart cut out before my eyes.
And the girl in the pictures, spread out on my table, with her hand, forty-two years held, was scared. I remember the day I sat with you and took these pictures. The studio was cold, shoulders bent to protect the bare skin above my tank top, raw with exposure, small hands pulling a tiny string from the unraveling elastic. There was the white light piercing my eyes, long shadows asleep on the floor. You had trimmed my bangs the night before as I sat at your knees and felt your finger hold the hair between skin and blade.
It was your birthday and the clouds moved fast, pushing a storm through the trees. And all I wanted was to take your picture, give you proof of your beauty. Not beauty seen from the surface, hair caught in iron pressed, skin pulled beauty. But the deep, hiding place in your eyes, beauty.
Because when you photograph someone, you are holding their most gentle place inside your eyes. And it takes trust and vulnerability to allow this wild forest place to be seen.
And sometimes you just need to remember someone without all of the years attached.
Sometimes bravery is an unraveling string, held inside the smallest hands.
And I found you on this day, camera in my hand, the sun just beginning to give in to winter’s persuasive winds, the way the air felt thinner and your skin went translucent in the watered down blue sky.
A whisper. Let this be sacred.
And I thought about all of the days, the minutes tied in knots, with your hand over mine, guiding the fabric through the sewing machine’s open mouth, needle plunging up and down, sinking into the pattern’s inky guides.
Your hand holding mine, as it held a mixer for the first time, peanut butter thick against the bowl’s milky sides. Your fingers weaved between mine, pressing crisscross, fork patterns into the rolled dough balls.
And I could hear you raking through the open window, the scrape of rusty metal fingers on the concrete ground. He was working an extra shift at the steel mill and the water on the stove had boiled over.
I could see you through my mirror, the reflection of you in the backyard, knee deep in periwinkle hold as you pulled and placed, reviving each sunken plant, reborn.
And I watched you grow a company on the basement’s concrete floor. Homemade silk screens exposed, letting the light open each place where the paint would sneak through, creating fabric soaked in courage. And the quiet drag of feet on hardwood stairs after the light sank past midnight’s last wave.
I watched you walk into trucking companies, alone, sales pitch neatly scribed on your chalkboard heart, smeared and rewritten over and over again.
And I remember the moment you let go of my hand and pushed the lock down on the car door. The soft wisp of curled hair over your eyes, as you took your last breath before turning and walking away.
“I’ll be right back.”
You were brave, mom.
And it was your voice on the phone the first time I really missed home. I was living in Japan and the streetlight was out as I stood in the shadow of the closed grocery store. And you told me I would be ok. You told me you loved me.
And the neon light flickered long enough to find more coins.
And your voice was a tunnel home, the silence between your words, an open door.
And maybe you don’t know, but I have an entire part of my heart dedicated completely to the memories of each and every time you ever held my hand or stroked my hair, hugged me or told me, “It’s going to be ok.”
You were brave, mom.
And I could feel my heart wanting to run back to you, to the hand on my hand, guiding me.
And your eyes tell me you tried.
And isn’t that all I can ask for, for someone to try, to stumble around me long enough to find an open door in the murky stream of growth.
Those are the brave ones, courage strung over shoulder marching into the depths of wet eyes wandering. And there is no place to hide inside these wet eyes, hope and dream awash in the cold, raw light, exposed.
Because even the most tightly woven masks require holes to see, a place where light can get in, the place inside that can never be covered, where the paint can get through, coloring over the darkest lines.
And when I look at those pictures, I can see all the places where you were scared just like me, where maybe you worried a worn path around your heart.
I used to write poems for you and hide them in my drawers. Sometimes I would drawer flowers around the words. I waited for your soft whisper inside those petals, still closed.
“I’m scared too.”
Because somewhere I lost my voice, there in the dark forest walk, caught between snare and thorn, like a toy misplaced, under a swing, drown inside the storm’s wet stream. And I needed your hands to help me search, to tear apart the leaves, the deep tree roots holding it all together.
And I was so scared. I hid it all, every sound and small whisper, until it was choked from my heart, the torn vessels that pumped blood to my most tender places.
And I couldn’t find your eyes back home.
I travelled far from this swing set, from your hand lifting me into the sky, where it felt like wings set free. And all the places I went seeking your eyes on my heart.
I just wanted someone to make it all better, to fill in all of the cracks and put all of the broken pieces back together, the parts of myself left strewn under the tallest trees.
Sometimes, something lives in us so long we can’t remember when we ever agreed to its inhabitance under its rusty nail hold.
And I prayed. I prayed your skin and bone and bent finger hands knew how to put it back together.
This love looks like resurrection, like skin torn from the bone. And the holy voice that speaks.
“This is not over.”
This grace is the face of love.
And being a mama aches as much as it opens.
And I can see the girl woman who gave up so much of herself just so I would know what mama hands felt like wrapped around my heart.
I am 42, and you, you are some years past, and I have travelled paths away from you, around you and back to these hands I remember. Still open. Waiting at the door. And some days, now, I can look into your eyes and recognize your maps. Each street and valley low, some flooded with tears, some torn, never to be travelled again. And I can find myself there. Your paths, your streets, your milky stars connected.
And some days, I want to invite you into mine. Let you walk a bit through the dark forests I hid from you.
Let you hold the seed on the back of the wind, this small girl voice held tightly in your hand.
And this prodigal daughter, returning home, born from a heart drawn in bravery.
I found you here, mom.
I found your beauty. Not from being understood, but from the delicate place of understanding. Not from seeing, but from allowing my heart to be seen.
And I don’t want to wait.
Because there are all of the things telling us life is sacred. The health scares, the pause just before the doctor leans in and speaks, the rush of heat on skin as he darts out of my hand, as the car's brakes cry a little louder, the red light turned green, then yellow. The instant caught. Then gone from our hands, escaping into the open sky.
And this voice feels like blood just beneath the skin, rising to the cut. I want to tell you now because when you finally realize that beauty is the tender, the ordinary, the day after day, the hands held, the warmth of the sun that lifts a weary heart, you want nothing more than to shine a light on it.
I’d never taken a picture of you.
And all I really wanted was to give you a birthday gift. But it was you that ended up giving me the gift. And what I got was your eyes.
A whisper. Your eyes tell me it’s all true.
Sometimes, a daughter needs to know she can be scared.
A mother does too.
Let's be brave together.
Because this is who we were.
But this is who we are.
And this is glass broken,
Where a voice is set free.