There’s a picture that sat on my Grandmother’s bureau that’s been on my mind lately. I remember encountering it in a particular apartment, the last one she had before moving in with my aunt. I must have seen the picture every time I visited because it sat among other photos in frames just after coming through the front door. Looking at the image, back then, I would have been 10-12, I was struck by an awareness of my parents as entities other than my parents. The picture was from before my brothers and I were born, at least I’m pretty sure it was. There were things that stood out to me from the picture: my dad’s handsomeness. I don’t know how he managed not to spread his attractiveness to his children, but it was clear then, just as it is plain today, that none of us is as good looking as our dad.
So, too, did his confidence not spread to us. In this picture, he has an almost mesmerized joy. It’s the shining eyes of the true believer gazing into the face of glory, it’s the awestruck imbecility of the acid high. Even young, it was apparent to me, not just that people do not exhibit this emotion, but that most people don’t even feel it. And it was clear that for my dad, this was real. This was it. Again, how he ended up with angry, depressed, skeptical kids is not clear to me. Inside my dad is a bag of serenity that he will snort whenever times are gray and the true miracle of his life is that he has never ended up washed out, eyes red, on the downturn.
My mom’s expression disturbed me almost as much: she looks, for the all world, like someone who sees the ugly face of the future bearing down on her like an unstoppable 18 wheeler, and yet has found herself in a room where no one is acknowledging even the sound of the truck, much less time table by which everything will soon be destroyed. It’s not just unhappiness or disappointment, it’s that in her face is a sense of discovery of unpleasantness, a slow horror dawning, which, we can only imagine, is exacerbated by the enraptured individual at her side.
Much like my dad’s holy glory, my mom’s discomfort was unmistakable. What I didn’t know then was the cause of her anxiety. It was only a few short years before the crumbling aspect of my parents’ marriage would dominate all others. But my examination of this picture, the awareness of some chasm happened long before I knew. I was baffled by her expression, and even learning, as I later did, about her frustrations with the church, her marriage and upbringing, didn’t quite account for it. Perhaps it should have, but the expression on her face seemed far more profound than her casual dismissal of ideology.
With my brother’s recent revelation on mom, on her lack of desire to have kids (and lack of alternatives) the expression suddenly makes more sense. The entire life was a lie, was a trap within a system she couldn’t claw her way out of. To which, until recently, she did not know there was even a door.