On Photographing My Mother

Nonfiction by Sara Dailey

You have said what you are.
I am what I am.
Your actions in my head,
my head here in my hands
with something circling inside.
I have no name
for what circles
so perfectly.

-From the Rumi

Giving birth to me poisoned her. Incompatible blood, sent backwards from me like a tide flowing out, entered her system and commingled with her own, polluting it. Too sick to hold me, she spent nearly a week in the hospital down the hall from where I, un-yellowing inside my incubator, spit cries unknowing to a new world I did not know or understand. Like a lone crow squawking awkwardly from a limp tree limb, the sound had only itself for company. This, I think, explains a lot.

For a framed collage I planned on displaying next to the guest book on my wedding day, I still needed a photo of my mother. All the other squares were complete—moving from childhood to adulthood, the photos showed the symbolic journey my fiancé and I had taken to find each other until in the center square was a photo of the two of us together, carefully posed the way the photographer had suggested. But my mother’s square was still empty. After months of listening to her describe why each photo I chose was the wrong photo—because she looked too fat in it or her hair was a mess or she didn’t like what she was wearing or she wasn’t smiling enough and so on—I offered to take a different photo of her with my own camera.

She’ll only agree to be photographed in front of her lilac bush. “Because it’s beautiful” I hear her say, and wait. I know what she wants is for me to tell her that I think she’s beautiful. But by high school, after years of trying to bolster her ego through kind, though sometimes false words, while trying to get her to stop savaging my own, I’d given up. Not my job to make up for the mothering she did not receive as a child. And while parents are theoretically obligated to love their children unconditionally, since they have chosen to have them, we, their children, are under no such obligation. I did not agree to that, I think, then click the shutter once.

Seen through the camera lens she is a titled Madonna, out of focus. I adjust, make practiced movements, until her face swims its way clear to me, like a beacon or other warning. Uncomfortable in the light, she is blinking and shading her eyes. The sun finds nesting spots in her hair, glints from the corners of her dark brown waves, settles on her pendant, which glows like a star near her heart. Separated by camera we are safe, this form of love is one that we can handle. Take the photo as it is meant Mother—an offering. The way I understand what beauty is—bursting with nature, a host of abundant purple stems growing uncontrolled, the way disorder always makes itself part of life, all framing you, my origin. Like my father my love is one of action, of signs like this—smooth, unhesitating shutter click after shutter click.

In the few pictures there are of her as a child, her smile is a fixed gleam, tongue swallowing both sun and her father’s secret, how a wolf could wear the clothes of a man, his rumpled shirts and scent of farm, have the same big hands that killed chickens and crushed berries into blackberry wine. Looking at the oldest of the photos, taken when she was only five or six, feels to me like staring at a ghost. That girl has gone from her—like a chameleon might shed its skin, this second self has also been shed, like she’s tried to shed all traces of her rural upbringing, her knowledge of farm life and poverty in equal measure. These days the only nature she’s inclined to be around is in a garden, where all things have been bordered, are safe and contained. She fills her closets with clothes she rarely ever wears, her mantels with object after object—even hires a cleaning woman to work for her—this woman who more than once wore a potato sack dress. As a child she bought me doll after doll to make up for the one she never owned. As my hands keep working the camera, I’d like to tell her that what I wanted was not a doll, but a mother who did not so often cry, a mother I was not so often afraid to talk to.

At age 13, while looking for an envelope in the drawer of her wide wooden desk, I find instead court documents detailing her father’s crimes, the “sickness” that sent him to a mental hospital and his children to different homes, that would lead to me eventually having what I termed pseudo-grandparents, and would lead to my mother inheriting a deep understanding of shame. These documents labeled my mother as witness, framed her in my understanding in a way that still did not make her easier to deal with. And though she was the one out of all the children to finally report her father’s doings, she still can’t talk to me about it. Like a moon, we orbit it. Like a moon, it is so often present, a cold light coloring our actions. Even now, as I photograph her, like the camera lens, this past provides a filter for my seeing, a shadow I can almost imagine as standing behind her and over her.

I brought the documents to my father instead of my mother, having been told by him at an early age that she needed to be protected. It is the motto we still often operate under, though they are no longer married and haven’t been for more than a decade. I have questions for him—I’ll always have questions—and there are some he will never be able to answer. Like when can I stop looking out for her and start protecting myself. Like why I too must pay for her father’s sins.

Can we love each other to death? Can we love something so much that we crush it in the process? Over the years my mother has told me the following: I don’t know how to load a dishwasher, I can’t learn to do my taxes, sew, take care of a house plant or control my finances, I am too like my father, I have no heart, I am cold, I don’t love her enough, I really should learn to control my husband, I don’t know how to properly clean a bathroom, a rug, load a washing machine, I don’t spend enough time with her, I don’t appreciate her, I don’t know how to say thank you, my house is falling apart, I’m overreacting, I’m being ridiculous, I just don’t understand, and, at clothing store after clothing store, let’s find something more slimming.

What she doesn’t say is why don’t you need me more. What I don’t say is because you weren’t there when I did. What she doesn’t say is what I really want is my father’s apology but he is dead and without it I can’t find peace. What I don’t say is you can’t expect your children to make you whole. Overhead, the sun, caustic like a truth, is hot and I’ve begun to perspire, a thin trickling from my hairline like I’m an iceberg faced with global warming. Or perhaps like a polar bear atop that iceberg trying to stay afloat. She blinks. And then I blink. And breathe. And click.

sara-daileySara Dailey currently lives in St. Paul, MN. Over the years she has been a bookstore supervisor, a writing tutor, and a publishing company intern. She currently works in a library and as an adjunct faculty member for several universities. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Whiskey Island Magazine, Ascent, The Bitter Oleander, Red Wheelbarrow, Diner, California Quarterly, Calyx (forthcoming), and Sleet (forthcoming), among others. She recently won Shadow Poetry’s 11th biannual chapbook competition for her manuscript The Science of Want, and she also presented a critical essay at last year’s Hawaii International Arts & Humanities conference.