The photos in the leather album are sepia and dramatic, commanding the eye of time not to blink. It is the 1920s and ’30s. She is a Bohemian, an artist, a mysterious star of film noir. Her face shines as if freshly scrubbed and rubbed with cold cream. Her hair is dark, not blue-black like mine, but full and lustrous, the hue of chestnuts.
In one photograph, my mother has just turned from her easel to the camera, interrupted, creation suspended. Her smile is promising and secretive, a Da Vinci smile. Who is the photographer? I can almost hear him instructing, “Turn only your head, Loretta—no, too much—a bit of shoulder please—that’s it, now a slight tilt—that’s it—perfect.” Snap, snap.
In another picture she sits on a high stool, one foot on the floor, the other on a rung. She is the center of attention in her group of friends, bobbed and beaded, radical for their day, but none as beautiful or radiant as my mother, before the thought of me. The women are much too confident and mature, too tempered by the austerities of their era, to be called girls or even “college girls,” although I know they are all students at Cooper Union. They are so universally happy, so full of gifts, so eager, that the word “Depression” might be, to them, mere economic theory. Perhaps “Great Depression” is a term more worthy of the grandeur of their youthful invincibility.
Turning the page, I see my mother wearing huge sunglasses that make her look like an exotic insect. Her head is tilted and she’s making a long Modigliani face. My mother clowning? How can I be sure it is actually my mother? Perhaps she has a secret comic twin.
Several pages in the album are devoted to Queen Loretta. She stands regally in creamy gown, a long cloak of ermine falling from straight shoulders while an attendant in broad-striped knickers, elfin slippers, and puffy-sleeved shirt is poised on a ladder above her with a crown in his hands. She awaits her coronation, not demurely, but by divine right. She is of the lineage of Boudicca, Warrior Queen of the Celts, and Gormleigh the powerful, treacherous wife of Brian Baru, High King of Ireland who drove the Vikings back into the sea. Or so she appears as she reigns over the Bronx summer carnival.
On the facing page, she is caught laughing as she sits on her throne, scepter in one hand, cocktail in the other. The king sitting beside her on separate throne prop is a mere accessory to her splendor. I observe from her body language that she is not overly fond of the paunchy king, thank God, for I wouldn’t care for his genes. I wouldn’t want his bulbous nose or nascent jowls.
Some of the pictures I pass over quickly. She is in trios of women in wispy Watteau dresses posed beside large square automobiles or coyly beneath Renoir rose arbors. There are intriguing images of her in jodhpurs and long lean boots, holding the bridle of an alert horse, an obviously spirited animal whose muscles ripple beneath the paper, whose heart clearly wants to jump. I have never seen my mother near a horse that was not on a carousel, nor have I seen her in such cruel boots.
As a child, that album intrigued me with its flash-card biography of my mother’s life before me. I often skipped the horse-and-rider page, perhaps sensing even then the lush adult secrets implicit in the settings, the costuming and the careless confidence of the people and even the horses. I’d go straight to my favorite image, a close-up portrait of my mother looking directly out from the page, glowing, happy, eyebrows perfectly penciled in the straight, slightly mad style of the day. I could hardly believe that this glamorous woman was my mother, the one who cried into her pillow so I wouldn’t hear her. But I did. And I trembled. I’d wait until my father stormed from the house, then go and lie beside her as she pulled herself together for me. “I’m okay. I just have something in my eye.”
I observed her shoulders curved inward, protecting her heart. I stroked her hair that no longer gleamed like a chestnut. I loved the mother in the album. I pitied the mother beside me.
The summer I turned thirteen, I chose, naturally, to put a little distance between my mother and me, so the next time I heard a tempest erupting in the parental bedroom, I very carefully removed the favored portrait from the security of its page, from the black paper corners that imprisoned it. I planned to place it on my pillow and lie down next to this strong mother. But when I freed the picture, there, beneath it was another, smaller picture. My mother in her riding outfit posed with her arm looped in the arm of a handsome man who was not my ginger-haired father, but whose hair was as dark as mine. The man wore pale jodhpurs and a pale blazer. My mother leaned toward him, looking uncharacteristically happy. The picture somehow embarrassed me. I quietly replaced the portrait, covering the secret image, and waited for my father to leave in a fury before going to lie beside my mother. I had discovered something revealing about her and caught a faint lovely glimmer of danger. This time I did not pity her.
Over time, I occasionally sneaked a peek at the hidden picture and gleaned more information from it. The man was wealthy. I could tell by the clothes. She was more into him than he into her. The angle of their bodies offered the clue, hers leaning more, his with a hint of arrogance in his bearing. A duke? A sheik?
Finally, emboldened by the simultaneous achievement of high school graduation and legal adulthood, I brought the photograph to my mother and demanded, “Who is this man?”
The picture startled her. She had perhaps forgotten it, but not him, for she sighed, “Just a friend.” I heard great regret. My mother had a way of dismissing people with a haughty Boudicca lift of her head, which she did at that moment. There would be no further disclosure. She left me to a romantic’s inventions. The crown prince not permitted to marry the commoner? An ill-timed cup of hemlock? My father arriving on the scene and throwing the competition out a second-story window?
On another occasion, I approached obliquely and asked, “Why don’t you ride anymore?”
She pointed a long bony finger at me, playfully touched a button on my blouse. “Because I had you.”
Full of confidence, full of love, I ventured, “Because you were afraid you’d lose me?”
She laughed suddenly, bitterly. “If you could abort a baby by horseback riding, the horses in Central Park would be worn out.”
The breath went out of me. I haughtily lifted my head in the manner of my mother, dismissing a rank little bloom wanting to take root. I saw myself swimming in amniotic fluid, tiny webbed hands grasping cords, tendons, hanging on for dear life as my mother whipped her horse to a gallop.
I retired the album to the top shelf of a closet and went off to university, never to live at home again.
The year after I married, when I was twenty-four, marked my parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. My husband suggested we give them a surprise party in our new yard. Cornered by my own lack of disclosure to him, I agreed. I called my mother’s four brothers and three of them thought it was their twenty-fourth anniversary. Aware of the accusatory mathematics, I casually asked my mother, “How many years have you and Dad been married?”
“Twenty-five this year.”
I told the brothers they were mistaken and went ahead with the party.
My husband strung paper lanterns in the trees. We hired musicians, arranged for a photographer, created an extravagant buffet, and managed to actually surprise my parents. The real surprise was that they were still together.
The photographer captured a beautiful moment of my parents laughing together, leaning into each other, as if in love. I framed it, and in an act of perverseness or survival, or love, it’s still hard to tell, I slid the secret photograph behind it.
They didn’t part until death. He went first. She lasted another year. In her final days, I ambushed her again with the picture. “Who is your friend?”
She smiled, her radiant smile before the thought of me, and sighed, “That is Emile.” She stroked my blue-black hair. “He went back to the Argentine.”
I wondered how much my father had known, whether the image and its implications leached an acid into him, even if he was ignorant. Secrets, I’ve come to realize, are muscular, have power to corrode, to divide, to batter away, opening old wounds at every wink, expertly cutting new ones where they don’t show.
The other thing about secrets is the smug power they give the keeper, the hidden upper hand. My husband has never seen this picture. It’s as if, emotionally, I have always undressed in the dark. I think, finally, I am ready to risk exposure, give the picture its own frame, and speak of Emile.