One Memory, One Picture

When Tammy was three, her mother Bonnie was killed in an automobile accident.  Of this woman who bore her life, Tammy has but one photograph and but one memory.

This is the photo.

The aesthetic quality of the picture would suggest that it came from one of those shopping mall photo booths.  An off-centered, grainy, black and white shot of her face.  She is not smiling and her eyes are looking at something above the camera lens that captured her attention for a moment that ended up lasting forever.  Her eyes are focused on something concrete, but there is an ethereal quality to her look.

When Tory was a baby, sometimes as I was changing her diaper she would stare at the corner of her bedroom, but there was nothing there.  No toys, no stuffed animals, nothing on the wall.  But she was focused on something.  It was that kind of look on Bonnie’s face.  A long, hard, concentration on nothing at all.

As a gift for her daughter someday, I am going to write a life around that picture of Bonnie Jean Emerson.  I will tell who snapped the photo and how Bonnie knew that person.  It will tell of everything that happened in her life that led her to that moment and everything that happened afterward.  The story will explain why Tammy’s family never talked to her about her mother and why there is only one photograph.  And why it is this photograph.  I will tell my wife everything she ever wanted to know about her mother.  Everything she has been deprived of by death and family.

That is the one photo.  This is the one memory.

It was a blueberry smell that woke Tammy on that one-memory morning.  She rode it to the kitchen where her mom stood in front of the stove.  The image is still vivid to Tammy.  A spatula in her right hand, left hand on hip.  Cigarette burning in an ashtray on the counter.  Her mom’s hair is long, brown, straight.  It flows over the shoulder straps on her white cotton nightgown stamped with bouquets of blue flowers.  From the corner of her eye she sees her little girl and – in slow motion – she turns and smiles down at her.

Stop.  Rewind.  Turn and smile.

When the rest of us are remembering what we remember about our mothers, all things good and bad, this is what Tammy does.

Stop.  Rewind.  Turn and smile.

So wonderfully normal.  So magically ordinary.  Making blueberry pancakes on a Saturday morning.  Not like a twenty year old mixed-up single mom.  Not like someone who was capable of dying young.  Not like the tragedy she would become.  Not like anything but a mom.

That is the memory.

In a dream one night, Tammy’s mother gave me her own memory of that moment and the images are every bit as vivid as those that Tammy describes.

Little girl Tammy is standing there in the kitchen doorway, teddy bear tucked under her right arm.  Her hair is getting long and Bonnie imagines how cute it would look in a bob, although Grandma Joyce would not approve.  She is wearing a white cotton nightgown sprinkled with bouquets of blue flowers, just like Bonnie.  Just like her mom.

Tammy chews on her left thumbnail, anxious and happy in this secret watching moment.  Her nose is freckled, her eyes are bright and she is ready for the world.  She is ready for life.  She looks up, drops her hands and lifts her face with a broad smile.

My how I do love this little girl, Bonnie thinks to herself.

Stop.  Rewind.  Turn and smile.



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