How we remember them: The childhood picture frame collage

Through my foster mother’s photos, I travel so easily to the past; her frame a plastic-covered time machine courtesy of someone who is long since gone.

A drawing of a picture frame with family photos
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been part of the lives of millions. In “How we remember them”, we reflect on how we process loss and the things – tangible and intangible – that remind us of those we have lost. 

It is a picture frame, a hideous brownish-orange plastic, a product of the 1970s, purchased at Kmart or Zayre or some other store that went out of business decades ago. These stores offered bargains, blue-light specials, and financial reprieve to struggling single mothers and down-on-their-luck families.

I am no more than three in the pictures that are held together with tape in the frame that is almost as old as I am, 47. There are 10 images in total. When I remove the back of the frame, I see the handwriting of my foster mother, Esther. It tells the who, when, and sometimes where of the picture. I star in several and play a supporting role in others, alongside Esther, my foster brother, my biological brother, my grandmother, and a variety of inanimate objects that helped define who I was: an eye patch that earned me the nickname “pirate”, a baby doll dress that serves as a hat, a pair of yellow sunglasses, and a wooden dog that I pulled along with a string.

I wear everything from a hat with an E for “Everett” – the city we lived in – to a sunshine-yellow bathing suit proclaiming that I am “Miss America”, to a towel my foster mother cut in half to create more, so it didn’t seem like we had less. I remember the bathing suit was a favourite of mine, as were all the bathing suits I collected throughout my youth to be worn on the lakeside vacations my foster mother saved up for all year. While I sashayed across the kitchen, I asked Esther if I was the prettiest. I needed her reassurance not about how I looked but about how much she loved me. I needed to know she wouldn’t leave me as my biological mother had.

In the pictures, my history stares back at me from so many places.

There is my foster mother’s kitchen, outfitted with fake brick flooring made of a cheap linoleum, installed by the housing project where Esther raised her three biological children and her two foster kids, me and my brother. She often fights for more time to pay her rent on the push-button wall phone as she smokes cigarettes, a thin veil of vapour exiting her mouth and rising above her head. I imagine she is breathing fire on bureaucratic housing authority officials, who wear bifocals and sensible shoes with orthotic support bought by sensible wives with names like Brenda and Margaret.

In the kitchen, I sit in front of the white cabinet where my foster mother stored the non-perishable groceries. We would pull things out and stir up culinary creations when we were bored. Not one of them was edible, but the birds had less discernible palates and enjoyed our impromptu dishes when we left them outside on the porch.

It is also in the kitchen where I stand with the eye patch I wore for a good part of my childhood. I recall the way the hairs in my eyebrows would stick to the adhesive on the patch as I tore it off and watched my view of the world go from half to whole.

In the only picture in the collage not featuring me, there is a rare moment of camaraderie between the women who raised me, my foster mother, and my biological grandmother. They both smile, while my foster brother looks on, and I wonder if the smiles were sincere or forced.

My grandmother’s jealousy toward Esther became a thing that bred resentment from both myself and my foster mother. It was Esther who took us on weekends, during storms, after school, and during the kidless vacations my grandparents often took. I always wondered why it was so hard for my grandmother to understand why Esther and I were so close. It was something for celebration, I thought, that the little girl without parents trusted and loved someone who loved her back.

In several pictures, I am in the basement that served as my playroom, complete with a toy box and a makeshift kitchen with lawn chairs and a prime location under the stairs. It was conveniently located across from the washer and dryer. I once caught my sock on a nail on the third step down and tumbled through the wide gap between the steps and the railing and smacked my body on the pavement floor. I remember only the way my sock felt as it caught on the nail and the cold floor as it met my cheek.

In the subterranean playland of poured concrete and bland blue walls, we build fantastical worlds where we are mothers or movie stars or hairdressers, but I always have to be the pretty one or the popular girl. No one leaves the beautiful and well-liked.

In these imaginings I create with friends, I am not a little girl with an eye patch whose parents ditched her when she was a baby. I am Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Blondie. I am Miss America. My bathing suit says so.

In another picture from the collage, there is the snow fort where I played with the brother related by blood after the infamous Blizzard of ‘78. The winter storm was a historic, horrific blizzard that left the US city of Boston incapacitated in February that year, dropping over two feet (0.6m) of snow in less than 32 hours with snow drifts as high as 15 feet (4.6m). It came on the heels of another large storm that dropped a significant amount of snow. The snow fort was large enough for us to fit in.

It is difficult to imagine my foster mother out in the snow capturing our magical winter oasis built just outside the living room window. One of her kids, my non-biological siblings, must have taken the picture.

Somehow my foster sisters – Beth and Sue – are not in any picture, and are missing. This is the one thing that bothers me about this item that allows me to travel so easily to the past. A plastic-covered time machine courtesy of my foster mother who is long since gone, along with my grandmother, and my mother.

With the frame comes more than images, more than me at three. It is a reminder of my past, my origin story. I was the little girl taken in by a woman who already had three children of her own. The one whose mother and father battled drug addictions so they couldn’t take care of her or her brother.

It is a reminder of the woman who became my mother, without birthing me, without sharing my blood. While my grandmother threw away pictures to hide or forget the past, my foster mother documented my childhood. I am grateful, especially now after her death.

In the 1970s, recording life’s moments was an arduous process. First, Esther took the pictures – which meant buying film, loading the camera, and then having the images developed. I recall going to the local Kodak photo booths in the shopping plazas of my youth. We would drop the film in an envelope and hand it to the attendant. Days later we would return as if an eternity had passed to find out which pictures had developed.

Once the pictures developed, Esther would have bought the frame. This was probably done on one of our trips to the store where she perused aisles while she smoked a cigarette and looked for sales.

When we returned home, I imagine that she laid the pictures out on the kitchen table and taped them together, and then affixed them to the hard protective plastic frame. Before that she would label them with the date and the place like, “the cellar” or the time, “The Blizzard of 78”.

I can hear the sound of the tape as she pulls the last of it from the roll and swears, angry that she will have to set her project aside and continue it another day. I smell the smoke from her cigarette as it mixes with the Avon-brand perfume, a light powdery scent I will still smell when I am in college in the late 1990s, long after her death from an aggressively growing brain tumour that doctors discover too late. I cannot recall the name of the perfume or the type of tumour.

These pictures and the memories they hold like gifts are my once upon a times. When she was alive, Esther told me about each one, regaling me with tales of who I was once. Each picture is a snapshot of a time when life was less complicated than it is now. I often look back at these pictures when I need comfort. In them, I find safety and a reminder that I once belonged to someone as my children now belong to me.

The cracked frame needs to be replaced. Its plastic body is broken from years of use and the many moves it has endured following me to college, my first apartment, and eventually to my dream home.

Each picture tells a story.

While I know that it is time to switch the pictures to a new album or collage frame, I can’t. With everything that has changed in my life, especially since the pandemic, this thing needs to remain unchanged.

It is not just a picture collage with memories, it is a thread to my past. It is a tool I use to tell my children about my mother, a woman they never met. It is also a way for them to see who their mother was – once upon a time – and it is a way for me to share my life with them and create another generation of memories.

It is how I remember that I had a mother even if she wasn’t mine through blood and biology and that she loved me enough to preserve my childhood, our past, so I could hold onto it forever.

Source: Al Jazeera