My favorite photo of my mother is in black and white. Mom is sitting on the maroon sofa of my aunt’s floral living room. I know it is Sunday because she is wearing a skirt. Her long thin legs are crossed at the knee. She is holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. She is smiling and having the time of her life. I hear her trademark laugh.
In our tiny rural town my mother was hard to miss. She was five foot eight and rail thin with olive skin and curly black hair. She had flashing brown eyes and always wore bright red lipstick. Mom talked loud and loved a dirty joke. She could swear like a construction worker.
Mom was never idle. She moved from sink to stove to refrigerator, working all day long to feed my Dad, my three bachelor uncles and me. Mom rarely ate. She survived on coffee, cigarettes and chicken backs. “I like the backs,” she would say as she stripped the nonexistent flesh from the bones.
Mom had a daily ritual of sweeping, mopping, dusting, and laundry. I remember her hanging sheets on the line in the hot summer breeze. I loved the way they billowed and blew, but Mom had no time for such sentiments. “Don’t you get dirt on those clean sheets,” she would call through the open kitchen window. “Go cut some asparagus for lunch. And stay out of the ditch.”
When fall came the kitchen was abuzz with the work of canning pickles and jams. I slowed her down so Mom said, “Take these peach pits out to the garden and plant them.” When the acrid odor of burning leaves drew me to jump into her neatly raked piles, I was told to “go play in traffic”, as if there were any on our lonely dirt road.
Winter brought snow to shovel and family affairs. All of Mom’s large Italian family gathered at our home for Christmas Eve. The drinking and loud conversations scared me so I hung back and watched. I hid under the tree with the thousands of gifts she had painstakingly wrapped, none of which I wanted or asked for.
In the spring, as Mom was bustling to put together elaborate bouquets for the cemetery, I would gather a small bunch of wildflowers to put on my sister’s grave. I sat watching my mother hack away at the invading grass around the headstone, imagining what life would have been if my sister had lived and I was the one who had died. My sister would have been an olive skinned beauty with a big laugh and an outgoing personality. She would have been loved and pampered, and I would have been brought beautiful flowers on a warm spring morning.
I look again at that old photo of my mother. I can see what the camera could not. The gorgeous smile and frenetic energy were camouflage used to displace the pain in her life. The loss of her first husband in The War. The death of my sister. The shame of my adoption. The discontent with her life on the farm. But for that one moment on film my mother was queen. The Queen of Denial.