I stole a picture from my parent’s mantelpiece in August. It’s a rough, 4×6 kind of frame, bent at corners from years of being flung into a suitcase or a box, dust glued to its glass. The back stand of the frame is bent, so it can never stand by itself, solitary against the clean white of a wall or the cherry wood coffee tables of the houses I cut out pictures of in my spare time.
I stole it at first because I wanted to fill my office with the evidence that I belonged to something. I wanted picture frames, books on shelves, cute mismatched lamps, a bulletin board with postcards of Van Gogh paintings. I told myself that the old frames would give it a classic, unstudied elegance. I put tea on my shelf and all the mementos of a life still at the beginning: books from my law and ethics class sophomore year next to granola for the days I forget to pack my lunch, glossy prints of faculty art exhibits, my diploma sandwiched between Thirst by Mary Oliver and a bag of Port City Java coffee. I put this picture on my desk next to the larger, shinier one of me hugging my dad at graduation. I almost forgot it.
One day when I reached for the phone I knocked it over. It made a sweet, quiet clink onto my desk, a polite cry of dismay. And when I went to pick it up again, I looked at it.
And I saw my mother.
In this photo she is standing outside in the garden in England, the climbing roses flushed with early spring. The windows behind her are cracked open a bit, to let in the smell of wet, renewed earth – a smell that my dad has always said is in our blood, is good for us. Her arms are folded against her chest in a cable sweater and a pink checked shirt peeks out near her throat.
It is the softness that startles me – my mother smiling in such gentle delight, her head tilted and leaning forward, her eyes laughing, but looking through you. She can see me in this picture, even though she doesn’t know my name. She can see all the years unfolding between her and Dad, and her gaze has a bigger love than the beginning love of romance. It is mother love and friend love; the love of God and her three year old students in Sunday School. It is the love the house we make as home. It is on your knees love, doing the dishes again love, walking the dog with her twenty-two year old on a Sunday afternoon.
There, on my desk, between roses and white windows, between the phone that doesn’t ring and a graduation hug, is my mother.
The woman I am searching to be already in front of me, smiling at the me that does not yet exist, with a smile that the winery owner will tell me on a Saturday night unites us.
“I knew right away who you were,” he will say, leading me over to where my mom and our guests are sampling reds. “You’re the spitting image of your mother.”
And you will smile, realizing for the first time, that is the biggest compliment someone could pay you.