Who are all these blondes and where were they my whole life after you left me to this dark-haired family? Here, my dress is navy with long sleeves and a white smock over it. The bride stands in a full white dress, her body covered except the area right above her chest, and then it’s a second skin, white mesh.
You are outside of the photograph, your hands motioning at me to pull my finger from my face, but my hair is always stuck to my cheek. I didn’t know then that this would be the carpet from your funeral beneath my feet. The girl in front sits on the floor in her red dress, her lips pulled into a tight smirk. I imagine her ankle touches the carpet and that she likes the way it feels against her panty hose.
I know now you went to where they paint ceramic stars all day long, taking with you your talent for painting, your love of the supernatural.
That day, you put the basket of flowers in the refrigerator, and I sneaked into the kitchen, pulled out a petal and ate it. You caught me with one hand digging into the tub of butter, red petals stuck to the palm of my hand. You spanked me and tossed me back into the playpen with the baby. The flowers were cool on my tongue. I didn’t know what to do with them when you tossed me into the aisle of the church with a distant cousin, so I rolled the petals around in my fingers until they curled into tight flecks of red. I dropped them to the floor and didn’t hear them ricochet against wooden pews and stained glass.
The petals I carry in my white basket are freshly plucked, the sting of your slap on my hand still moist, the basket of flowers they gave me that following August already dead, rough weeds in whicker. The pew I sat in is there before me, empty, but I can still hear the sound my shoes will make clicking on that wood, and I am standing where your casket was, having forgotten the smell of pink flowers and red bows and flower girl dresses that get stuffed into closets.
I hold a fishing rod next to Grandpa, in his hands a catfish as tall as me, while he looks right at the camera, a shadow from the bill of his cap smearing his face.
His hands always smelled like crawfish. When he hugged me, he would grab my ribs too hard and you would laugh at how he tortured us with tickles and bear hugs and lifting us high into the sky.
He has given up fishing. The only thing that remains from that life is a stuffed shark hung above the doorframe in the living room and the stuffed blue marlin hanging above the windows.
Now he picks pumpkins on two fake hips, has a special chair that helps him stand up. His clothes smell like the summer squash and zucchinis that have dried and wilted on his front porch.
When you left he grew older suddenly. Each year I forget to call even more, his age and his pain the only clear sound over the phone when his hearing aid crackles, or when he laughs too loud not knowing what I’ve said. Here is the guilt I feel for you, in this man’s face, his mouth turned slightly downward, a confident frown, a face of someone able. That day, he fed the whole family. We stood on a dirt driveway, overgrown grass in the background, while I looked to the side, either at you or a passing car.
After you die, we all take baths together, all four of us kids. In the picture, my leg rubs against little sister’s thigh and behind and I imagine in the water she feels slimy. Here, we are smiling, and I hold a small plastic football in my hand, and it seems we all might get ready to splash one another, to laugh right out of the glossy image. The others are leaning forward covering themselves, but I don’t, with my head thrown back and my naked body open, blurred beneath waves of bath water. Behind the camera is daddy, not you. Since you left, we are a factory line in the bathtub where daddy moves from one child to the next, scrubbing, lathering, rinsing, not stopping when little sister or little brother screams, when soap slides down the forehead into the eyes while he wipes his hand before picking up a plastic cup. He will grab us by the hair and hold us down, tailbones pressed against the tub, so we don’t squirm beneath the water. Our baths take minutes. It’s never long enough for our fingers or hands to wrinkle, not like when you let me run around beneath the sprinklers for hours in the summer, not like when I dropped baby oil in Eric’s bathtub, his skin turning all rubber, the curls in his hair wet worms. I can’t see it, but I can conjure daddy’s fear, how hard his voice seemed when we went anywhere, how he called us rotten apples with rotten cores, smiling, and the way he jumped in the Ramcharger and said “Sound Off” and each of us, numbered, responded – 1, 2, 3, 4! – as fast as we could, while whoever dealt the front seat battled the fogged window, rubbing viciously, but never quick enough, daddy saying is it clear, damn it, is it clear. None of us ever answered fast enough, like when we tried to jerk our heads from the pouring water in the bathtub; he was always bigger, faster, and you were always in the other room tucked away into some dusty corner, your smell washed off our skin, our clothes.
As a child, you had red curly hair, brown eyes like little pecans, and a plump, downturned mouth, always positioned in surprise. At least in these photos: you holding a lizard up to the camera, your tongue sticking out or you vacuum a floor with a toy, your eyes closed. You wear bows and ruffles at your neck, pull your hair back with a barrette. When the pages turn, your hair does, too, from red to sandy blonde to brown. By the time you are in third grade, your hair is a soft brown and you have short bangs.
It’s not like looking at a photo of myself, knowing what I was thinking on picture day, in that same chair, watching the person behind the camera, and smiling. It’s not like looking at a picture of someone I know. I see eyebrows the same color as mine. I see my sister’s nose, another sister’s smile. I see my niece’s eyes. And still, even when the features match people I know, even when I can point and say there I am, I’m not sure what it is I really find.
“Student Growth Report” is what they used to call your report cards. South Holt Elementary addressed them to parents: “We have attempted to indicate evidences of accomplishments, growth, and development with this report.” The paper is faded, yellowed, as if it has sat in a smoke-filled room for decades. Your name is written on a dotted line next to the word child. The year is 1969-1970 and you are mostly “satisfactory.” You read eighteen books that school year. You work “carefully and neatly”. You use your “time to good advantage”. It doesn’t mention if you follow directions or accept criticism. It doesn’t talk about your cursive handwriting and dotting your eyes with hearts. It leaves out what your voice sounds like when you answer a question in class, if you prefer science or mathematics, if you raise your hand first, shaking it. The marks are all the same. Mrs. Louden doesn’t write your favorite book of the year or if you chase boys on the playground during recess or if you get migraines and leave school early. From this piece of paper, I know that you are alive, somewhere in 1970, with some vague “habits and attitudes” that are check-marked on a piece of paper. Each box from one quarter to the next contains the same awkward blue ‘S.’ This is the record.
On the front, there is a warning for parents, written in all caps: “CHILDREN GROW IN THEIR OWN WAY…AND IN THEIR OWN TIME.” The ellipses point to some unspoken understanding of growth and I know parents understand the silence in the middle of this sentence. Grandma’s signature hasn’t changed since then. I imagine Grandma signing this each quarter, sitting down at the big table in the dining room, clearing a section from boxes of pumpkins or tomatoes that have been stacked. She writes her name slowly, taking in the growth she has seen her daughter go through the past weeks and year. She knows what you did. She knows who you are, what your favorite food is, how sweet you are to the neighbor cats. Yet, I see none of this from this card, and like your photos, it is another casing of you, a skeleton of you as child, not mother with a soft hand on my forehead every time I have a fever.
My first communion happens on the same day we move to California. It’s October and I am in third grade. My hair is short and in a perm, blonde beneath the sun. All of us girls wear jean jackets because it’s the style. I am a real Catholic now, standing in front of the City Hall in Forest City, the “Act of Contrition” still repeating while I smile at the camera. You haven’t been here for a while and my new mother takes the photos now. You should see how big daddy smiles into the camera, his arm around Heather, his knees bent so he is now our height.
Being a real Catholic makes me closer to being an adult and after this photo, I walk down to Oktoberfest and look at tables of pumpkins and fall decorations, the parents and grandparents staying behind.
Your parents panicked when they heard we were moving too far away. They had threatened court and custody. The four of us were the closest Grandma and Grandpa had to still knowing you, and moving was like you leaving all over again. Later that night, we packed up a U-Haul and drove off in the Sprint, in the dark, in secret, the goodbyes from earlier in the day suddenly much heavier than the fall leaves. California was where I had imagined you all along, in sunglasses and white dresses, your hair blonder and pulled back into a long ponytail. You were walking on the stars in Hollywood, filling out postcards, painting ceramic clowns and bears, and no matter what anyone said, I knew we were coming to find you.
When we got to California, the trees smelled like pine and dried weeds and there was no grass. The mountains reminded me of chocolate chip ice-cream. The houses didn’t even have basements. Daddy ended up growing out his hair, and you were still somewhere on the sidewalks in Missouri, kicking weeds that grew in the cracks.
We rent a house with a hot tub room and I suddenly feel like we are moving up in the world. Hot tubs outside were fancy anyway, but this was inside, right off the dining room, and had its own sliding door. This is the only time we get to sit in the hot tub. We don’t have the money; we only rent. Daddy works later and later every night and we eat Ramen noodles and my school mates make fun of my Missouri accent. Later, when I see the ocean for the first time, I’ll say, you can’t see the other side, and listen to daddy laugh and laugh.
Everyone gets in the hot tub except for our step-mother. She holds the camera and refuses to wear a bathing suit. She isn’t as confident as you, as other pictures I’ve seen, you running along the beach in a shirt and bikini bottoms, your hair tangled with wind. Our step-mother wears turtle necks and bright red blush. In the hot tub, we are a family again. The bubbles rise at our chins, soft suds. Some of us have closed our eyes, and we are happy here, sitting on little benches, rubbing our hands across the jets. Daddy smiles in front of him at no one, just smiling, and I know that he is brave, that he has found us something new, that here, things will change.