I can hear her say, “a day late and a dollar short,” as her birthday was actually yesterday, February 27. She was born in 1930, so she would have turned 86 yesterday. She’s been gone since 2004–March 6th to be exact–just after she turned 74.
Perhaps she doesn’t mind that I am sitting down to write this a day late. In fact, knowing my mom, she would have much preferred my quiet thoughts about her this past week as her birthday approached and quietly arrived. My mother did not like attention outside of the tight circle of our family. I wrote elsewhere about how she even hated the gifts students and parents would give her at Christmas. It only occurs to me now, though, that maybe part of the reason she hated the presents was that she knew some of the families couldn’t afford such extras, but gave them because they felt obliged to give them. Maybe the mothers didn’t want their kids going to school empty-handed and feeling self-conscious; my mother would have identified with the mothers and likely the children, too. She had a hard life as a child, as a young married woman, and especially as a single mom.
Since my mom passed, and then my sister, I’ve become the keeper of some things–photos, correspondence, deeds to graves, costume jewelry, buttons. Nothing has monetary value. She didn’t accumulate much money, and the one asset she did have–her house–evaporated when she spent her last years in a nursing home. I love some of these pictures, though. Many are a true mystery to me, 100 years old and older, relatives and friends of relatives long past. I suppose someone might know who they are. If someone handed me a photograph that happened to have my great-grandfather I would likely know him right away. Beyond him–and including anyone who came prior to my Italian grandparents–I would be at a complete loss.
But some of them are so familiar to me now that I can close my eyes and conjure up every detail, especially this one and a few others of my mom. I have to guess she was five or six. It’s her backyard, behind the same house I grew up in. It’s a tiny backyard–the whole lot is 2400 square feet, and the house takes up slightly more than half of that. It looks like it was just dirt then, but the vacant lot behind had plenty of green. That lot was still there when I was growing up 30 years later. By then we would have put paving stones over the dirt, but the lot was being encroached on. If you took a picture from the same spot in 1965 instead of 1935, you would have been able to see through the trees to tiny ranch houses that had been built on the next street. To the right, a dry cleaner would have opened and a house would have assembled a crazyquilt of additions–going back, then right, then left, then right again to accommodate their narrowing lot and what must have been a growing family at one time.
If this had been 1935 or 1936, the depression was raging. The unemployment rate would have been close to 20% or higher. My mother always told me that, up and down her street, most of the men were out of work but my grandfather, Wilbur Halliday, Sr., always had his job. He was a machinist in a naval shipyard. So I don’t think they ever truly wanted for basics, and my mom said they were the only family on the street with a car, but the dirt backyard says a lot. My grandfather had work to do, more important things to spend his time on. Besides, my grandmother wasn’t well, so much so that when my mother turned nine, my grandmother would go into an institution, never to emerge again.
Goodness, my mother looks happy though. in her little sailor suit, one leg kicked back and resting on the beam of the fence. I am certain she was posing for my grandfather, or maybe her uncle, James Fox, or “Uncie” (with a hard c), the two good, good-natured, and easy-going men in her life. It had to have been very late spring or summer, maybe Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. A bouquet of flowers seems to be resting on a chair to her right, so perhaps Memorial Day makes more sense. They were going to celebrate the day, visit the graves, have a nice meal. Maybe there was even a parade that day, and my mom was dressed up to watch it.
I bet it was my grandfather, Pops, behind the lens. The picture was as much for him as for my mom. He was still a young man, with two children. Let’s capture this, he must have been thinking. Let me take a picture of my adorable girl, of her smile for me, and for every good thing that we have. The world might be collapsing around him in both big ways and small, but he had this, and he had his wish for her that her life might be full of such moments. She did her job, eagerly smiling back.