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.