Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Webs of Memory
As I sort through the box of old pictures and papers in preparation for Mom's burial service on Saturday, my history takes shape like glorious and intricate spiders' webs revealed in bright sunlight. New images surface. Pictures appear that I would swear were not there before. Or I'll see something in a familiar picture that weaves an entirely new connection.
There are contradictions and confusions. A last name spelled three different ways. Two different wedding books with two different dates and locations for one marriage. Evidence that the stories heard in childhood might not have been completely true.
Mom's mom, always more legend than human, reveals little of herself, even after a thorough focused search through the box.
Velma LaJene Conley Cain Williams. Mom used to tell us she'd died when Mom was eighteen months old, of alcoholism. In the childhood stories my grandmother Velma was half Cherokee, the daughter of royalty, a princess. Mysterious. Wild. Romantic. She and my grandfather Mahlon had loved each other deeply and he was devastated by her death. I used to stand and stare at her picture, hoping beyond hope that I might grow up to be that beautiful. Wishing beyond reason that she had lived, certain she would have been the one person who truly understood and loved me.
There is no information about Velma's family. No way to know for certain about her Cherokee heritage. No explanation for the fact that her last name has a number of different spellings, or why she had a second last name before she was married to my grandfather. No explanation for the two different wedding dates. And of course everyone who might be able to answer those questions is gone.
The fact that Velma was twenty-two when she died really hit me for the first time this week. Married at seventeen, mother to Mark at eighteen, mother to Joyce at twenty, and gone less than two years later. Twenty-two is so young, and seems too young to me for alcohol to have been the primary cause of her death.
I also noticed that there are many pictures of Velma with her first-born, her son, and I only have one of her with Mom. It's a haunting picture—she had to have died not too long after it was taken. What stands out even more is the gleeful grin on my mother's baby face. A smile none of us ever saw from the adult version of her, and that isn't evident in any of the pictures taken as she grew into womanhood.
I wonder at the webs of memory Mom wove to create a mother for herself. She wouldn't have remembered much beyond what her body held from a year and half of whatever love and attention Velma gave her. Any stories were told by her dad's family: the grandparents who raised her and the aunt who big-sistered her. A family who felt their son had married beneath his station. A family who did not approve of his half Indian wife. It seems likely her best pictures of her mom would have been woven of imagination and longing.
I hope a circle has been fulfilled with Mom's death—that she's somehow with the mother she needed so badly and learned to live without. That she's bathed in the maternal love she spent her life convincing herself she didn't need. And maybe even that the two of them are caring for my daughter until it's my time to join them all.