The Last Picture of My Mother

The last image of my mother, but for the photographs taken of her body at the crime scene, is the formal portrait made only a few months before her death. She sat for it in a mass-­market studio known for its competent but unremarkable pictures: babies coaxed to laughter by hand puppets, children in stair-­step forma­tion wearing matching Christmas sweaters—all against a common backdrop. Sometimes it’s a sky­-blue scrim that looks as if it’s been brushed with a feather, or an autumn scene of red and yellow leaves framing a post-­and­-rail fence. For moodier portraits, as if to convey a sense of seriousness or formal elegance, there’s the plain black scrim.

She was forty years old. For the sitting she’d chosen a long-­sleeved black sheath, the high collar open at the throat. She does not look at the camera, her eyes fixed at a point in the distance that seems to be just above my head, making her face as inscrutable as it always was—her high, elegant forehead, smooth and unlined, a bill­board upon which nothing is written. Nor does she smile, which makes the cleft in her chin more pronounced, her jawline softly squared above her slender neck. She sits perfectly erect without looking forced or uncomfortable. Perhaps she intended to look back on it years later and say, “That’s where it began, my new life.” I am struck with the thought that this is what she must have meant to do: document herself as a woman come this far, the rest of her life ahead of her.

The thought of that has always filled me with despair, and so for years I chose other stories to tell myself. In one version, she knew she would soon be killed. I know she had gone to see a psychic for entertainment with some friends from work; she’d told me as much, though she never said what she’d learned. Around that time she had also taken out several life insurance policies, and so for years I told myself she must have been preparing for the inevitable, making sure—in her last few weeks—that her children would be taken care of after she was gone.

In reality, if the psychic told her anything it was most likely something promising about her future—romance, perhaps, or hopeful predictions about the new job she’d just taken as personnel director for human resources at the county mental health agency. I know that most likely the life insurance policies were simply one of the benefits of that job: she’d have signed up for them during the open enrollment period for new employees. Still, the narrative of her making plans, stoically aware of what was to come, comforts me. I can’t bear to think of the alternative, can’t bear to think of her in that horrible moment, the sudden realization of her imminent death after allowing herself to believe she had escaped. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between her hope and her prag­matism.

Hindsight makes me see the portrait differently now—how gloomy it is—as if the photographer meant to pro­duce something artistic, rather than an ordinary studio portrait. It’s as if he made of the negative space around her a frame to foreground some difficult knowledge: the dark past behind her, her face lit toward a future upon which her gaze is fixed.

And yet—undeniably—something else is there, elegiac even then: a strange corner of light just behind her head, perhaps the photographer’s mistake, appearing as though a doorway has opened, a passage through which, turning, she might soon depart. Looking at it now, with all I know of what was to come, I see what else the photographer has done. He’s shot her like this: her black dress black as the scrim behind her so that, but for her face, she is in fact part of that darkness, emerging from it as from the depths of memory.

“It’s as if he made of the negative space around her a frame to foreground some difficult knowledge: the dark past behind her, her face lit toward a future upon which her gaze is fixed.”

Nearly thirty years after my mother’s death I went back for the first time to the place she was murdered. I’d not been there since the year I turned nineteen, when I had to clean out her apartment, disposing of everything I could not—or would not—carry with me: all the furniture and household items, her clothing, her large collection of records. I kept only a few of her books, a heavy belt made of bullets, and a single plant she had loved—a dieffenbachia. Throughout my child­hood it had been my responsibility to tend it, every week, dusting and misting the upper leaves and snipping the browned lower ones. Be careful when you handle it, my mother warned. A small precaution, seemingly unnecessary, but there is a toxin in the sap of the dieffenbachia; it oozes from the leaves and the stems where they are cut. Dumb cane, the plant is called, because it can cause a temporary inability to speak. Struck dumb, we say when fear or shock or astonishment renders us mute; dumb grief, when the grief is not expressed in uttered words. I could not then grasp the inherent metaphor of the plant, my relationship with my mother, what it would mean that she had made its care my duty, while warning me of its danger.

When I left Atlanta, vowing never to return, I took with me what I had cultivated all those years: mute avoidance of my past, silence and willed amnesia buried deep in me like a root. Nor could I have anticipated then that anything would ever draw me back to that city, to a geography that held at every turn a reminder of a past I was determined to forget even as I tried to honor her memory in every way I knew how. Indeed, going back for work, after accepting a university faculty position, I thought I could circumvent my former life, going out of my way to avoid at least the one place I could not bear to see. Until I had to.

To get there, I had to drive past landmarks that took me back to 1985—the county courthouse where the trials were held; the train station from which my mother traveled downtown to work; the DeKalb County police station at the intersection of Highway 285; the bypass loop around metro Atlanta—and make my way down Memorial Drive, a major east-west artery once named Fair Street. It originates in the middle of the city, Memorial, and winds east from downtown ending at Stone Mountain, the nation’s largest monument to the Confederacy. A lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South, Stone Mountain rises out of the ground like the head of a submerged giant—the nostalgic dream of Southern heroism and gallantry emblazoned on its brow: in bas-­relief, the enormous figures of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Not far from its base is the apartment we lived in that last year, at the 5400 block of Memorial, number 18­-D.

Though I knew exactly where it was, knew the landmarks leading up to it, I drove right past at first and had to double back to enter the tree-­lined front gate. From there I could see Stone Mountain in the distance, suddenly visible where Memorial crests, as if to remind me what is remembered here and what is not.

The last time I was at the apartment complex, the morning after her death, I could see the faded chalk outline of her body on the pavement, the yellow police tape still stuck to the door, the small, round hole in the wall beside her bed where a single bullet—a missed shot— had lodged. Nothing in the landscape today bears evidence to any of that, though everything seems to carry the imprint of loss. Row after row of rusted stair rails and window screens mark the shabby buildings—just a decade old when we moved in—and a lighter shade of paint coats the walls, as if to hide the dark history beneath it.

Standing under the window to what had been my mother’s bedroom, I thought of the bullet hole: so small an imprint of the event that changed forever our lives. It would have been repaired soon after, filled and painted over, and I wondered now if the building had settled more with age, the walls shifting. I’ve seen the depression a once-covered nail head can leave when a house settles, a pock in the drywall like a wound opening from beneath the surface. That’s what’s drawn me back: the hidden, covered over, nearly erased. I need now to make sense of our history, to understand the tragic course upon which my mother’s life was set and the way my own life has been shaped by that legacy.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir

I keep an image in my head of myself from that first day after her death, at the apartment. There’s a video recording of my arrival, made by a local news station, and so the image is not only of those few moments, but of watching myself—from a distance—entering my former life for what I thought to be the last time. In the footage I walk up the stairs to the door and step in, shutting it behind me. When I think of it now I don’t hear any words, the volume on mute. Perhaps the reporter spoke our names; or perhaps she did not, calling my mother victim instead. And in my mind’s eye a caption fills the bottom of the screen: it identifies me as daughter of the murdered woman. Even then I felt as though I were watching someone else—a young woman on the cusp of her life, adulthood and bereavement gripping her at once.

The young woman I’d become, walking out of that apartment hours later, was not the same one who went into it. It’s as if she’s still there, that girl I was, behind the closed door, locked in the footage where it ends. Often, I have seen that doorway in my dreams. Only now is it a threshold I can cross.

From the book Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2020 by Natasha Trethewey. To be published on July 28, 2020 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Natasha Trethewey is a former US poet laureate and the author of five collections of poetry as well as a book of creative non-fiction.

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