Through my foster mother’s photos, I travel so easily into the past; Her frame is a plastic-covered time machine that was loaned to someone long gone.
In the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, losses have been part of the lives of millions. In How We Remember Them, we reflect on how we deal with loss and what things – tangible and intangible – remind us of those we have lost.
It’s a picture frame, an ugly brownish-orange plastic, a 1970’s product bought from Kmart or Zayre or some other store that went out of business decades ago. These stores offered bargains, blue-light specials, and financial relief to single mothers and struggling families.
I’m no more than three in the pictures, which are taped together in the frame, which is almost my age, 47. There are 10 pictures in total. When I remove the back of the frame, I see my foster mother Esther’s handwriting. It says who, when and sometimes where of the image. I star in several and have supporting roles in others, alongside Esther, my foster brother, my biological brother, my grandmother, and a host of inanimate objects that helped define who I am: an eye patch that gave me the nickname earned “pirate”. , a baby doll dress that doubles as a hat, yellow sunglasses, and a wooden dog that I pulled on a string.
I’m wearing everything from a hat with an E for “Everett” — the town we lived in — to a sun-kissed yellow bathing suit that proclaims I’m “Miss America” to a towel my foster mom cut in half to make more of it it didn’t seem like we had less. I remember the bathing suit being one of my favorites as were all the bathing suits I had collected throughout my youth to wear on vacations by the lake which my foster mom had saved for the whole year. As I darted through the kitchen, I asked Esther if I was the prettiest. I needed her validation, not about my looks, but about how much she loved me. I needed to know that she would not leave me like my birth mother had.
In the pictures, my story stares at me from so many places.
There is my foster mother’s kitchen, which has a cheap linoleum imitation brick floor and was moved from the housing project where Esther raised her three birth children and her two foster children, me and my brother. She often struggles for more time to pay her rent on the wall phone while smoking cigarettes as a thin veil of vapor escapes from her mouth and rises above her head. I imagine her spitting fire at bureaucratic housing officials wearing bifocals and sensible orthopedic-support shoes bought by sensible wives with names like Brenda and Margaret.
In the kitchen I sit in front of the white cupboard where my foster mother keeps the perishable food. When we were bored, we pulled things out and stirred up culinary creations. None of them were edible, but the birds had less recognizable palates and enjoyed our impromptu dishes as we left them outside on the porch.
It’s also in the kitchen where I stand with the eye patch I wore for a good part of my childhood. I remember the hairs in my eyebrows clinging to the adhesive on the band-aid as I ripped it off and watched my view of the world change from half to full.
In the only image in the collage that doesn’t include me, there is a rare moment of camaraderie between the women who raised me, my foster mother and my birth grandmother. They both smile as my foster brother watches, and I wonder if the smile was genuine or forced.
My grandmother’s jealousy of Esther became a matter of resentment for both me and my foster mother. It was Esther who took us with her on weekends, during thunderstorms, after school and on the childless holidays that my grandparents often took. I’ve always wondered why my grandmother had such a hard time understanding why Esther and I were so close. It was something to celebrate, I thought, that the little girl with no parents trusted and loved someone who loved her too.
In several pictures I’m in the basement that served as my playroom, complete with a toy chest and makeshift kitchen with lawn chairs and a prime location under the stairs. It was conveniently located across from the washer and dryer. Once, on the third step, I caught my sock on a nail, fell through the wide gap between the steps and the railing, and hit my body on the sidewalk. All I remember is how my sock felt when it caught on the nail and the cold floor when it hit my cheek.
In the underground playland of poured concrete and pale blue walls, we build fantastic worlds where we are mothers, movie stars or hairdressers, but I always have to be the pretty one or the popular girl. Nobody leaves the beautiful and beloved.
In these performances that I create with friends, I’m not a little girl with an eye patch who was abandoned by her parents as a baby. I’m Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Blondie. I’m Miss America. My bathing suit says so.
Another image from the collage shows the snow fort where I played with my blood brother after the infamous blizzard of ’78. The winter storm was a historic, devastating snowstorm that knocked out the US city of Boston in February of this year, depositing over 0.6 m of snow with snowdrifts up to 4.6 m high in less than 32 hours. Another large storm ensued, dropping a significant amount of snow. The snow fort was big enough for us to fit inside.
It’s hard to imagine my foster mother outside in the snow photographing our magical winter oasis built right outside the living room window. One of her children, my non-biological siblings, must have taken the picture.
Somehow my foster sisters – Beth and Sue – are not in any of the pictures and are missing. That’s the only thing that bothers me about this item that allows me to go back in time so easily. A plastic-encased time machine owned by my long-dead foster mother, grandmother, and mother.
With the frame comes more than pictures, more than I get at three. It’s 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 mom and dad fought their drug addiction so they couldn’t take care of her or her brother.
It’s a memory of the woman who became my mother without giving birth to 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, capturing life’s moments was an arduous process. First Esther took the pictures – which meant buying film, putting in the camera and then having the pictures developed. I remember going to the local Kodak photo booths in malls when I was younger. We would put the film in an envelope and give it to the warden. Days later, as if forever had passed, we returned to find out what images had been created.
Once the images were developed, Esther would have bought the frame. This probably happened during one of our visits to the store, where she was walking the aisles while smoking a cigarette and looking for deals.