Every now and then, I try to tackle the mounds of loose photos I have in my possession. There are piles of them, some vaguely organized in Zip-Loc bags from sporadic attempts at making order, the rest scattered into piles that make no sense.
Having grown up with a battering father and an emotionally abusive mother, I find it can be painful to try to organize the photos. Yet these pictures are a touchstone, something to keep circling back on. I guess I keep them because I’m still looking for something.
On a recent foray into the piles, I hit pay dirt. It was a black-and-white of me at about age 5, sitting on a trike, flanked by my 9-year-old sister, Franny, and my 2-year-old sister, Melanie [names have been changed]. Melanie just sits there looking adorable, while Franny and I are waving halfheartedly at the camera. It’s clear we’ve been told to wave—that my mother took the photo and was planning to send it to her parents.
How many times have I seen this photo? Probably many. But this time, I flipped to the back. What did my mother scribble there? The date, perhaps?
Here’s what I found instead:
Lisa with her phony smile
My jaw dropped as my blood pressure spiked. How could my mother be so unhinged as to criticize my 5-year-old smile? Not to mention Melanie’s “fat?” And how could she be so thoughtless, so shameless, as to record her distortions for others to see?
I couldn’t help flipping the photo back to the front to examine my facial expression, only to find that my smile was perfectly genuine. My mother’s observation wasn’t even accurate, let alone “sane.” What other twisted nonsense was she spewing day in, day out, while I was growing up?
That my mother was capable of such disturbed, and disturbing, behavior should not shock me by now. But there was something about this vile reminder that seemed significant. I often forget just how off-base her perceptions were, how many times her absurd comments were delivered right out in the open—how much damage she did. In the forgetting, I lose track of what I come from.
It’s not that I want to wallow in negativity; that’s not what this find means to me. Rather, I cherish reality. The photo helps orient me: yes, my mother was abusive; no, it wasn’t my fault; and—most importantly—no, I’m not like her.
I know that well-meaning friends might encourage me to “let go.” Surely she meant well; shouldn’t you have moved on by now, forgiven her? I can imagine their cheery skepticism: she can’t have been that bad—you turned out so well! But here, at the back of a frayed black-and-white photo, was concrete evidence in plain English: my mother was that bad. I need to be reminded sometimes of how far I’ve come.
Valuing that picture as I do, I put it in a very safe place. That is to say—I have no idea what I did with it! Freudian slip?
I’m confident the photo is back in the piles somewhere, waiting for me to rediscover.
Lisa Braver Moss is the author of the novels “The Measure of His Grief” and the award-winning “Shrug.” Her essays have appeared in the Huffington Post, Ms. (forthcoming), Parents, Lilith and many other publications.