There is a photograph, a portrait of my family from 1998 that hangs on the wall in our dining nook. My 15-month-old daughter is obsessed with looking at it. In our new but already firmly established habit—because her growth revolves around the acquisition and jettisoning of habits—Ruby points steadily at the photo, insisting I acknowledge it too. I lift the frameless, foam board photograph from its nail and hold it up to her. She stares at it while she messily takes her meal. I point to each person, pronounce each name slowly. Then I put the photograph back up on its nail.
This might happen twice in a mealtime. The habit is so new and there is so much to say about this photograph of each of my three siblings, my father and mother from 1998.
First, that we are all dressed in shades of blue. My father and brother wear matching khakis.
Second, that we are outside, resting our knees in the sand of a Delaware shore dune. The sky is bright but overcast. Almost sunset. I remember the photographer being pleased about these conditions.
Already I haven’t done the feeling of the photograph justice. Something about its framelessness adds weight.
More to say: I am fourteen. It adds an awkward dimension.
And: My mother did not survive her battle with brain cancer. She wanted to do these photos while we were all together. She planned a lot of things like this, in the year and a half after her diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy. But here she has her hair, the way she always wore it, short and salt-peppery. She looks well.
We called it the Beachhouse, though it was set inland with the corn and soy fields, a ten-minute drive from the closest shoreline, Bethany Beach. The dirt surrounding the house was soft and loamy, and everyone landscaped with sawgrass, which could cut you until you learned how to move through it. One-way grass.
I regard this photograph the way I regard that sawgrass, as an artifact that must be handled delicately, something pervasive in it. A very normal thing complicated by hidden elements.
My daughter is asking that I run daily through the sawgrass.
I begin pointing at my older sister and work my way across the image. We are clustered together and yet there is enough space to distinguish each of us. The guy was a pro. Sometimes Ruby names them with me, sometimes she just listens.
“That’s Sue Ayi. And there’s Sarah Ayi.” Ayi means auntie in Chinese.
“Who’s that? Poppy.” I ask and answer. That’s my father, bald and white and robust in the center. You can categorize my father’s physique into Before he gave up cookies after dinner and After.
“There’s Uncle Max.”
“And there’s Mama.”
“And there’s…Waipo.” That’s my mother. I don’t know what Ruby should call her. I call my grandmother Popo, the familiar form of Waipo, mother’s mother, and she is still alive. It feels odd to give Popo over to my mother, who holds no means of approval. My husband assures me that children often use the formal Waipo for their mother’s mother. But that makes my grandmother more familiar than my mother. I use it, but it hasn’t settled in me. It feels too inventive, too unworn.
Sometimes I name Waipo last, sometimes I come last. This is our family, I tell Ruby. I point at my mother, whose absence has so altered me, and name our relationship. This is my mama, over and over again. My daughter smiles serenely. Not a moment after the photo is back on the nail, my daughter asks in part gibberish for me to repeat the process.
Mostly, I am happy to do it. There is joy in watching my daughter study my mother’s face. A satisfaction in being their bridge. My grief is a long shadow but they exist in the gorgeous light before the sunset and that’s the way it should be. My daughter is fresh, my mother is legendary and there is so much to tell.
© Amy K. Bell
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Amy’s interview]