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Frames Consigned

Parents love to appear unannounced on a grown child’s doorstep. Rarely, though, do they ship 12 cartons of belongings to precede them.

Several years ago, my mother moved to San Francisco to be with an old lover she’d rediscovered. He drank, though, and hopelessly. Though she fell into the rhythms of a lifestyle that made perfect sense to her—healthy food and sunny weather, yoga classes and friends at the dog park—the relationship was doomed, and before long she wanted to come home. Maybe the whole thing reminded her too much of the past, 25 years before when she moved to San Francisco for the love of another man, my father, also good and kind but nonetheless unable to stop drinking. Maybe she was haunted by the eerie echoes of her time as my father’s young bride, when what started out as a fantasy turned quickly into something awful: night after night of his not coming home, or coming home drunk, and her pregnant, pleading with him to get better.

In any case, it all went south, and my mother began to send back East the things she’d shipped out there earlier that year. Some were things she wanted stored, and some were things she no longer wanted, but thought I might. My husband and I were living in an enormous old house in a rural town in western New York. Though she’d yet to visit, this must have seemed like the closest thing to home she could imagine at that point. One afternoon we received a phone call from the post office, telling us they had 12 boxes for us. She could have the carrier deliver them, said the postmaster, but would rather not, as the boxes were heavy and, well, there 12 of them.

Our town was so small that everyone knew everyone, and from anywhere in the country you only needed to write a name and a zip code (e.g., Emily Freeman, 14802) and the mail still arrived. So we felt particularly self-conscious standing in the small parking lot filling the back of our pickup with 12 huge boxes covered with stamps, and my name written on them in marker in my mother’s big looping hand.

She’d mailed the boxes at the reduced book rate, and most arrived slightly dusty and damaged, with none of their original crisp corners intact. Some actually contained books, children’s books, the ones my sister and I pored over, the ones my mother likely had imagined my sister and I would have needed by now, for children of our own. One box, underneath a deceitful layer of books (in case of a mid-journey inspection by the Postal Service), contained nothing but empty frames; most of the glass was broken during the journey. The variety was astonishing, everything from tarnished silver frames monogrammed with the initials of ancient relatives to a series of small junky plexiglass things. Only one of the frames actually held a picture: my mother in a bathing suit on a beach, smiling broadly at the camera, looking beautiful. There was something so terribly intimate about the photo, I could practically see the man, her lover in San Francisco, holding the camera. He was a man who elicited a facial expression I’d never seen my mother wear; a man in whose hands she’d bravely placed her heart just months before, and now was taking steps towards leaving.

The photo became like a piece of paper picked up from the ground, the kind you reach for hoping it’s a note, or a check, but then you find out it’s only someone’s grocery list, and you wish you could drop it. But that would be littering. My husband and I aren’t given to decorating the house with framed family photos, and even if we were, the picture of my mother seemed too private to hang on a wall or prop up on the mantle. But you can’t just throw out photographs with the trash. I’d assumed responsibility for my mother’s image the moment I picked it out of the box.

The photo became like a piece of paper picked up from the ground, the kind you reach for hoping it’s a note, but then you find out it’s only a grocery list.I imagined her finding the picture in the months to come, being forced to relive that moment. I wondered if she’d packed the photo in order to show me what she looked like when she was in love, an expression and a condition I rarely witnessed growing up. Or perhaps packing it had been an oversight, the boxes crammed full in a way suggesting a frantic rush to return her life to normal.

I’m not good with photos. In my basement I have a single shoebox filled with pictures in no particular order, thick with negatives I’ll never reprint. For nearly a decade I’ve owned a beautiful photo album, a gift from a friend, with a cover of orange silk, but only five of its pages are filled, with a motley assortment of images recent and historical: my grandparents on their wedding day; a college friend I’m no longer in touch with; my christening day; my dog. I have a wedding album, but only because my sister visited nearly a year after I was married and insisted that I make some sense of the stack of prints occupying the tabletop.

I don’t know what happened to the photograph of my mother. Maybe I took it out and stuck it in the shoebox with my other pictures. Or maybe I chose a book at random from my bookshelf and slipped the photograph between its pages, something I do with things I don’t want to lose, but that I don’t feel particularly inspired to store in a more formal or effortful fashion. Or maybe I just put it back in the box. I don’t know what happened to the box of frames, either, whether my mother retrieved them from our attic when she finally drove back from California, or if we made the kind of executive decision you sometimes make with loved ones, and dropped them off in a box at our favorite church thrift shop. Maybe right now someone is standing over a table of mismatched crockery and knick-knacks, holding up a frame and wondering about some woman on a beach.

Emily H. Freeman is a writer living in Missoula, MT. Her work has appeared in the anthology Best New American Voices, and in various print and online publications. She is working on a memoir about unexpected motherhood (among other things). More by Emily H. Freeman