April 2, 2020

Portrait of My Mother

The author's mother in the 1940s.

The author’s mother in the 1940s.

• By John F. Chisholm •

My younger sister, Helen, sent me a black and white photograph of our mother last week.

It’s one I’ve never seen before.

That much is easily explained.  Mother died in 2005.  Her correspondence was voluminous.  My sisters have been going through it slowly.  The photograph mentioned was enclosed in a letter sent her by a childhood friend.  That letter is dated 1944.  There’s no date on the photo, itself.

Judging by the scene, however, my sense is that the photo has to come from very close to that time.

My mother would have been 17 in 1944.

She’s facing the camera in a snow-covered urban scene, a pair of skates clutched under her left arm.  She’s slim and very attractive in a knee-length woolen dress.  She’s wearing lovely hand-knit mittens and trim leather boots with a scarf knotted under her chin.

In fact, she’s very pretty indeed, smiling broadly for the photographer with all the confidence of youth beaming from her features.

How very odd to catch a glimpse of your mother younger than you are now by 45 years and looking so very fetching ― besides being ten years younger than at any time you could possibly have known her.  Ever.

Don’t misunderstand.  To me, my mother will always be beautiful, but life played some scurvy tricks on her ― as it does with all of us.  She contracted polio in 1957 ― I was 3 ― requiring crutches for virtually all the time that I knew her, only to exchange them for a wheelchair near the end.

Her husband left her when she contracted that disease, leaving her to raise four children unassisted.

She did that job with unfailing determination, iron will and unquestioned love.

To see her standing unassisted, smiling broadly with skates under her arm is a drastic reframe of a very well-known character for me.

The image brings a realization into sharp focus ― normally one we only have in some very  abstract sense ― that is, at one time, our parents were young, too.  Yes.  Yes, they were.  Of course they had to have lives of their own, before having us as well.


It’s a great comfort to know that some of hers was happy.