Out of Focus

By Paula Younger

Memoir

Two years after my wedding I stood behind bulletproof glass searching evidence tables piled with pictures of smiling brides and grooms.  Jenny, the police officer assigned to photo viewing day, led me to the Misc. box, a cardboard beast overflowing with pictures and negatives.  She warned, “This might take a while.”  A blond woman flanked by her husband and her parents said, “Can you believe we have to do this?”  She rifled through boxes for a glimpse of the dress she had so carefully picked out, her husband’s smile, photos of friends and family.  I was looking for those things too.  But I was also looking for something else.  In that police basement I was searching for the last pictures ever taken of my mother and me.

The last time I saw her alive was at the end of my wedding reception.  I hugged Mom goodbye and her periwinkle silk suit crinkled beneath my hands.  She asked me to consider attending my nephew’s baptism the next morning, but I told her I wanted to be alone with Jason.  She reminded me we wouldn’t have much time together between my June honeymoon and my move for grad school in the fall.  I was the youngest of four and my mom’s helper.  We talked on the phone daily and went to movies and plays together.  I filled her Easter basket and Christmas stocking, and baked her birthday cakes.  I even attended the local college to stay near her and cleaned my parents’ house every two weeks.  But this time I decided to put Jason and me first.  Mom whispered against my cheek, “What will I do without you, my baby girl?”

The morning after our wedding, Jason and I lounged in our penthouse suite at the Hotel Teatro.  I had a twinge of guilt when I thought about my family in church, welcoming our first nephew.  Jason said, “I’m happy to go.”  But I wanted to focus on Jason and me, not family obligations.  The next morning we boarded a plane to Brazil.  After our honeymoon, we were supposed to meet my parents for dinner, but that morning Mom drove out of the quarter-mile driveway on our family’s acreage in northern Colorado.  A truck hauling 80,000 pounds of gravel slammed into her car.  I finally saw her two days later lying in a mahogany coffin wearing her same periwinkle suit, but with a fluffy white towel wrapped around her neck and head, the funeral home director’s compromise when my family demanded to see her.  Somehow that image seemed stronger, more vivid, than any memory I had of her.  It was all I could see.

The photographer called the day of my mother’s funeral.  My oldest sister and I skimmed the few pictures the photographer had developed, hungry to see our mother.  Instead we saw Jason and me exchanging our vows and our longer-than-average kiss, our arms clasped around each other and my tulle wrap draped between us like a streamer.  My sister said, “Ooh, these are great,” but softly, unsure how to act.  The photographer took the pictures back and promised to develop the rest soon.  He said he knew how important they were, especially now.  His big head and floppy hair bounced in sympathy.

 

 

A month later, Jason and I moved to Virginia to start graduate school.  Months passed without hearing from the photographer.  I worried the film had been exposed or the rolls lost, something horrible he couldn’t bring himself to tell me.  I reassured myself we would see our photographer, and the pictures, during our holiday visit.  The day after Christmas, Jason and I drove to the photographer’s office.  Closed, but the desks and computers were still there.  The photography awards and pictures of cute couples and kids still hung on the walls.  But two days later the phone number was disconnected.  Then one day the office was empty.  No pictures, no computers, just a pile of mail on the floor inside the glass front door.

Life without Mom became more difficult.  I attended classes, but had trouble focusing.  When I stepped into a Walgreen’s smothered with Mother’s Day decorations, I burst into tears and then spent the rest of the day in bed.  When I drove a car, I trembled, became lightheaded, and forgot my way.  I took breaks in parking lots, breathing deeply and reminding myself that dying in car accidents isn’t a genetic trait.  I struggled to get out of bed.  Mom came to me in my dreams and I missed her when I woke up.  One morning Jason stood at the end of our bed, his backpack strapped on, ready for his day of business school.  He said, “Your mom wouldn’t want you wasting your education.”

He was right.  Loss formed my mother early.  She was seven when her mother died from breast cancer.  One of her brothers died from AIDS and another from an alcohol overdose.  A few months before her death, she gave a ‘live for the moment’ speech to Toastmasters about the spur of the moment trip she and I had taken to England.  Whenever she had a chance to travel, she went.  She said that’s what being a working woman afforded her, and she always pushed herself.  When I told her I couldn’t stand math she said, “Neither can I.”  But she took advanced math classes at night after a full day of working as a chemical engineer.  She said she liked the challenge.  She wouldn’t have had patience for her daughter who had a chance to study in a top writing program but couldn’t pull herself out of bed.

I began to lose hope about tracking down our missing photographer, but Jason kept searching.  He found three complaints with the Better Business Bureau and four cases in small claims court.  Months later, he found an article online in the Northglenn-Thornton Sentinel, “Photo Studios’ Business Image Out of Focus, Police Say.”  The district attorney and some detectives had seized photographs, rolls of undeveloped film, and business documents from our photographer’s home.  The police would develop the rolls of film and then hold a photo viewing day, somewhere on the “thirty to sixty day horizon.”

The police department’s viewing day held no guarantees.  It was during Jason’s finals and the readings for my writing program, but this was my only chance.  I turned in my thesis and then boarded a flight with my students’ papers.

In the police basement, Jenny waited while I searched through the Misc. box, terrified our photos wouldn’t be there.  That cardboard beast could take hours to sort through.  If I went too fast I might miss something.  Halfway through the pile of grinning strangers, a few pictures spilled out.  Beneath the box’s massive flap was a smaller box.  Written in red marker was “UNKNOWN COUPLE.”

Inside were the pictures I had feared I would never see.  I skimmed past photographs of Jason and me until I found my mom.  There she was walking me down the aisle with my dad, hugging me before taking her seat, her reading Plato’s Symposium, high-fiving friends at the end of the ceremony.

 

 

Tears welled up. I was about to tell Jenny why the pictures were so important, but she started talking about my wedding as if she had been there, soothing me as my mother would have done.  “Those gardens were beautiful,” she said. “Such a great place for a wedding.  Brave too.  You never know what our weather is going to do.”  She said the white flowers in my curly hair and my tulle wrap were unique, and that my decision not to wear a veil fit the garden ceremony well.

I clutched a picture of Mom pressing her cheek against mine while she hugged me and decided not to tell Jenny about my mother.  Of course the pictures were important.  It had been our wedding day, not just the last time I saw my mother alive.  For two years I had been a mourning daughter.  I had forgotten the newlywed part.  I felt a decade older than that bride, but I remembered her happiness and excitement for the future, unaware that a life-changing car crash lurked on the horizon.

Jenny crossed out “UNKNOWN COUPLE” and wrote “YOUNGER” on the box.  For a moment, the world felt right, one in which mothers didn’t pull out of driveways without checking for industrial trucks.

That night, I stayed in my family’s home on our empty acreage.  Subdivisions were sprouting up on former farms, changing our rural area to suburbs.  I sat on my musty blue bedspread, surrounded by my stuffed animals and cassette tapes.  Below the windowsill, I love Corey Haim was still written in black nail polish.  1984 and The Girls at Canby Hall series crowded my bookshelf, and my corkboard overflowed with photographs of high school friends.

The phone rang, my old one that used to light up blue, but the neon had burned out years earlier.  Jason, calling after he finished his last final.  We joked about picking our photos out of a police line-up.  I described the pictures to him—us laughing after I accidentally cut him off during his vows; us gazing romantically at each other in the limo, pretending not to notice his eight-year-old brother lying on the floor; the guests at our reception looking up at our photographer on the balcony, noses pink from drinking.  As we talked, I heard a low murmur from the kitchen.  I had left the old black and white TV on for company, as my mother used to, and for a moment I imagined her sitting in her usual spot at the kitchen table, looking through the mail.  I wanted to run and show her the wedding pictures, tell her how beautiful and happy she looked, but I stayed on the phone with Jason, hanging on – for just a little longer – to the illusion of Mom waiting for me in the kitchen as she always had.

 

 

Jason said, “I’m already packing for New York.”  After graduation we would move to the big city.  His voice picked up speed.  “We should celebrate when you come home.  We got the pictures, we’re graduating, and our anniversary is coming up.”

I realized then we hadn’t really celebrated anything since our wedding.  Each holiday and event had become a potential emotional landmine.  That night in my childhood home, I was outside of time.  My parents and siblings didn’t feel far away, and neither did my husband.  Childhood and adulthood seemed intermingled.  For the first time, it seemed life could still be good without my mother.  I was ready to return to my husband with our long lost pictures, putting my faith into our future like I’d meant to do two years earlier.  This time, I would celebrate.

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PAULA YOUNGER’s writing has appeared in many literary journals, including Best New Writing, The Georgetown Review, The Momaya Review, and Unfinished Works. Two short stories from her collection, In the Era of Martyrs, are forthcoming in Harper Collins’ 52 Stories and The Rattling Wall. The collection is inspired by her time teaching English at a Coptic Catholic seminary in Cairo. She received her MFA from the University of Virginia Creative Writing program, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow and the Fiction Editor for Meridian. She was also a Bronx Writers’ Center Fellow, attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and received an Atlantic Center for the Arts residency. Her novel, Here with the Saints, was a semi-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, one of five finalists for the Virginia Kirkus Literary Award, a finalist in the William Faulkner - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, as well as a finalist for the Santa Fe Writers’ Award. She teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

47 responses to “Out of Focus”

  1. Laura Bogart says:

    My monitor got very blurry while reading this. I am so sorry for your loss.

  2. Jenny Shank says:

    Gorgeous essay, Paula. I love the scene where you go back to your childhood bedroom.

  3. Dana says:

    Beautifully written.

    Paula, I love the first picture of you with your mom. Your admiration and love are all in your smile.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thanks so much, Dana. I love to hear that, especially from someone who doesn’t know me or my mom. I’m a fan of that picture too. Thank you for reading!

  4. Teresa Hubscher-Younger says:

    You describe well the horror of those days that were filled with so much joy and tragedy. We were so unlucky then,and I felt like my ability to be surprised by misfortune disappeared. Fantastic piece Paula.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thank you, Teresa. That’s high praise from you. You put it so well – that trauma did change our ability to be surprised by misfortune. I am thankful for my wonderful siblings.

  5. Nancy Anderson says:

    This piece is written with so much heart. I love the contrasts of the hills and valleys of life. Ending with the desire to climb that hill one more time leaves me with such a sense of hope and optimism. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  6. Clare Murphy says:

    Paula,
    this is an evocative piece, yet succinctly told. Thank you. I look forward to seeing more from you.

  7. Miz Vicki says:

    What a wonderful story for a movie. THe ending is just great as I was really worried there’d be no photos. Great story of devotion, perseverance with lovely closure and new beginning.

  8. Cathy Collins says:

    Paula, This story was so touching and wonderfully written. Your mom was a very special woman, and I am sure she is in Heaven with her beautiful smile and hearty laugh watching over you, and being very proud of the lovely wife, mother and author you are. I can sure see alot of her in you. You are doing a great job!

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thank you, Cathy. That meant a lot to me. I love that you mentioned her hearty laugh. I’m honored to have any part of her seen in me. I think all of us try to keep her with us, especially now that we have kids.

  9. Kristin Iversen says:

    This is absolutely beautiful and captures so perfectly the import that is placed on the last memories of a person who leaves so suddenly. When death is so abrupt, when it comes at a time that is supposed to be the middle of something, not the end, I feel like there is an overwhelming impulse to relive the events that precede it and rewrite the events that follow it, so that, in some alternate story, your mother is sitting at the kitchen table, while you are upstairs on the phone.
    All of this is just to say, I am so sorry for your loss.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thank you for your wonderful comment, Kristin. I appreciate you reading my essay, your condolences, and your great response. I didn’t want to write a comment until I read your wonderful essay, and then I forgot to post a response. I absolutely love this line of yours:
      “When death is so abrupt, when it comes at a time that is supposed to be the middle of something, not the end, I feel like there is an overwhelming impulse to relive the events that precede it and rewrite the events that follow it, so that, in some alternate story, your mother is sitting at the kitchen table, while you are upstairs on the phone.”

      You nailed it. You write beautifully about loss as well. I look forward to reading more of your writing. Thanks again.

  10. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. It made me feel a little bit better to know I am handling grief, normally. I liked the part where you said you felt a decade older than the bride in the picture. It’s a good way to to describe the loss of innocence that happens when you get the rug pulled out from underneath you like that. Not only did your mother die, but a part of you did too. A new and wonderful part, came in it’s place, I am sure. But that is what makes you feel old, at least for me, anyway.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Stephanie,
      Thank you for your comment. I am so sorry that you’ve been grieving and experienced the rug pulled out from under you too. You’re right. A part of me did die that day. And yes, there is a good new part, but that innocence was lost for good. I’m sorry you understand this all too well. I do hate that term ‘normal.’ As I’m sure you’ve experienced, everyone grieves in their own way. Did you read the New Yorker article “Good Grief” by Meghan O’Rourke? This is my favorite quote from it:

      “Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process—sometimes one that never fully ends. Perhaps the most enduring psychiatric idea about grief, for instance, is the idea that people need to “let go” in order to move on; yet studies have shown that some mourners hold on to a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects. (In China, mourners regularly speak to dead ancestors, and one study has shown that the bereaved there suffer less long-term distress than bereaved Americans do.) At the end of her life, Kübler-Ross herself recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone. In “On Grief and Grieving,” she insisted that the stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” If her injunction went unheeded, perhaps it is because the messiness of grief is what makes us uncomfortable.”

      Thank you so much for reading my essay and leaving a comment. I appreciate it!

  11. Terry Buswell says:

    This essay feels unique and universal in its sad irony. I appreciate being brought along through space and time
    with you. It is lovely and devastating.
    I look forward to reading your novel.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thank you, Terry! So glad you read it and enjoyed it.
      I look forward to finishing that novel (well, the rewrite at least).

  12. Susan T. says:

    Beautifully written. Raw emotion reflected in the words that describe the writer’s relationship with two very integral people (her Mother and husband) in her life. I think your Mother would agree, you clearly didn’t waste your education!

  13. Angie Rhoades says:

    Beautifully written. It brought back memories of your mom saying prayers with us at night, before tucking us into our “birds nests”. I can see the kitchen and t.v., and remember your room, the Corey Haim memorabilia and all of the memories that were created in that house for everyone who visited. I am happy for you and Jason and the new “little man” in your life, who probably proves to you everyday that life can still be good….

    • Paula Younger says:

      Wow, Angie, I totally spaced the birds’ nests and my mom leading us in prayers before going to bed. You brought that back! Glad the essay took you back to our house, and all of our memories. I’m sure you have many memories of my mom and family, just as I remember so much about your house and parents. And you’re right, my little man and Jason do help remind me every day that life can still be good. Just not the same. So glad you read it, Boonie Bud.

  14. Linda Tate says:

    Paula–Thanks for your brave essay. What courage it must have taken to get through these events — especially looking through the photographs at the police department. I *love* that you included some of the photographs in the essay. Very moving. Linda

  15. Sherry Walker says:

    Paula, you really are a talented writer. I could feel your despair, pain, and heart ache at losing your mother at such an early age. The depth of your emotion really came through. Your short story will speak volumes to anyone who has ever lost their mother regardless of age. Moving on is important, but so is remembering. She will always be there in your heart.

  16. Ashley Fain says:

    Paula, I always knew from the time we spent scribbling stories in areas of the school forbidden to us during recess that you would always be a professional writer. Heeding the call of the Recess Ranch, I only joined you in those surreptitious fiction sessions occasionally; surely this is why your “School Girls” series was always far superior to my knockoff and very fantastical “School Daze.”

    In all seriousness, though, your talent truly shines through in this piece. I also applaud your bravery at tackling such an emotional subject matter. I know that it wasn’t easy. I am sure your mom is proud of you and your accomplishments. Bravo.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Ha! Bonus points to you for remembering “School Girls.” No way was that superior to “School Daze” (which was very entertaining). Only Catholic school would outlaw sitting around and writing.

      Thank you for your kind words about my writing and the essay. I know you’ve had too much experience with emotional subject matter too. Miss you, my dear. Can’t wait to see you in a few months.

  17. Lovely piece, so sad but filled with love and hope. I have a parent who died in a car accident, too, and I have University of Virginia contacts, to your piece really did hit home. Thanks for sharing.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thanks, Sharon. So sorry you know the pain of having a parent die in a car accident.

      Interesting to see the UVa connection! My husband received his MBA at Darden while I worked on my MFA. Looks like we have some similarities.

  18. Andrea Dupree says:

    This is a beautiful essay, Paula. Another example of your generosity as a person and a writer. Thank you!

  19. Deirdre Cryor says:

    What a lovely and inspiring piece, Paula. How bizarre that you had to pick up the pictures at a police station. Who would believe it! All of the pictures are beautiful and add so much to the story. I hope to take another class soon with you!

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thank you, Deirdre! I’m so glad you read it and enjoyed it. Yes, it was bizarre to pick up the pictures at a police station. This is when you definitely have to write non-fiction. Hope to have you in another class again soon. Thanks again.

  20. Sometimes I can’t find the words to express how something moves me- I just have to nod, take a breath and say, Wow. Beautiful essay.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thank you so much, Jannett. I appreciate you reading it and your kind words. Hope to see you around Lighthouse soon.

  21. Rita Reichert says:

    How did I not know this story of the pictures, dear Paula? Thank you for expressing so beautifully your journey of grief moving toward acceptance.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Pretty amazing you didn’t know about the picture debacle, dear aunt. But there was a lot going on at the time. Thanks for reading!

  22. Erika Rae says:

    Beautiful piece, Paula. The way you arranged it is lovely. Happy to welcome you to TNB! It was fun hanging out with you last night after Jonathan Evison’s reading!

  23. Naney says:

    I really really loved this story. I have not lost my Mother, but I don’t know what I would do if I did. She is so close to me. I’m all teary from this, and just love so many parts of your story. Your Mom waiting for you in the kitchen is what put me over the edge. Jason sounds like a wonderful man and I’m glad you have each other. I hope you write more, I look forward to reading it. Very haunting story, just those words ‘unknown couple’ heartwrenching.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thank you for reading it, Naney, and for your kind words. Mothers are precious and I’m so glad you still have yours. Jason is a wonderful man. I’m very lucky to have him, and I’m glad that came through in the essay. The ‘unknown couple’ was an odd moment. It’s so nice to hear what worked for you and I’m glad the emotion came through. Thank you again for reading! Always nice when someone who doesn’t know me reads my writing. And there will be many more Mom essays…

  24. Terry Buswell says:

    I re read this essay today. It deserves to not fade into obscurity.

  25. Joe Smith says:

    this should be read everyday!!!!!! it made me crazy on reading it.this is an award winning essay.Joe Smith

  26. Pete Pennings says:

    Paula this is a wonderful piece. Even though I know you and the story I now have a much deeper understanding of you and what you went through. I’m sure that writing this was very cathartic. Thanks for sharing.

    • Paula Younger says:

      Thanks, Pete. Technically, though, you are related to me. Hate to be the one to tell you. Thanks for reading my essay. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate the support!

  27. I reread Your essay. Yeats later I relate to it on an emotional level quite a lot more than before.
    It encourages me to continue to write. Look what can be expressed.

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