She is your mother.
That is the truth of the image: she is your mother and thus the child there, with the milky eye, the face half in shadow, must be you?
But is it you?
It is a you you do not remember, nor is it a moment you remember; it is a small child in woolen leggings, pulling at the hand of a woman who is also being leaned against by a small girl, in the light cast by a half-drawn blind.
The girl seems to be your sister.
You look again, closely: you have been told that this is your mother, and have shown and told others the same thing about this photo—but not many others, for it shows a life that is battered and restless, almost squalid. The three figures—you, your mother, your sister—are waiting for something; for your father to return home?
But then, he must be home, for it must be he who is taking the picture. And still, this sad trio seems to be lacking a father, a husband, a man of the house. They await a presence.
You are not the man of the house.
You are still too small.
You are not too small to love fiercely, as boys love their mothers, particularly in the face of absent or ambivalent fathers. Even so, your face is blank, perhaps because it is not your mother but your father, the arbiter of the photograph, at whom you are looking.
This is your history.
It is a strange kind of history, if it is one you do not remember. It is something someone told you about, something someone gave you: “Here.” “This happened.” “This is the photograph.” “This is yours.”
What is the relationship between memory and history?
You remember her arms. You remember your father, and the dark red chenille fleur-de-lys pattern embossed onto the cushions of the couch. You remember the restlessness of that house, of the things that happened there; and you remember leaving it. It was snowing. Your mother unfolded the bedspread and tucked it around the piano. She slipped her key under the front door.
You do not miss it, that house.
You do not like the thought of it—even now, any reminder of it makes you flinch, or shrink.
It makes sense, then, for many reasons that you have no memory of the moment in the photograph, and why you are not even sure it is you—there are so few other photographs of you at that age to compare it to. So many children look alike, the same shorn hair, pinched faces unused to the bones beneath, dark eyes reflecting a dot of light. What is so particular about this memory, what you most remember about it, is that it is unremembered. The exact moment in the photograph is the one you cannot recall. Together, the moment of the image, with its history of not being remembered, have become your memory.
I hand it back to you, the picture your father must have taken and your mother must have saved, and which you have let me hold just for this moment. You slip it back into your wallet, into the slit behind your identification cards, without glancing down. You carry it everywhere.