A bare bulb illuminated the dark corner of my mother’s basement where leftovers from my childhood were kept. I dug through the stacked boxes of old toys I could never bear to get rid of, baby clothes my mother had saved, and tacky art projects from years of public school. Heat from the furnace warmed the smell of cement and dryer lint, almost masking the faint scent of my step-father’s cigarettes. I pulled what I needed from the stacks and turned off the bulb overhead, leaving only the soft light that came through a tiny ground level window. Palms grimy with dust, I hefted two boxes of photos up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the living room.
My mother cozied on the love seat next to me as one by one I opened each tattered envelope, exposing the memories to daylight. She oohed and aahed over the still glossy baby pictures of my much younger sister, cooed over the thicker, more faded ones of me.
Looking at old photos makes me emotional; a strange mix of sweet and sad, like longing to hug and kiss someone but only being able to see them distantly through a window. I resisted being drawn into the memories. I wasn’t there to reminisce. I was looking for the newspaper clipping my mother had given me long ago. Over a year of internet searches, staring at the screen until my eyes burned, had not revealed my father to me. If the name of the newspaper was on there, maybe I could find a record that would give more information.
I excavated to the bottom of both boxes and the piles of photos grew around me like a nest. No clipping. I looked underneath the folds of cardboard but there were only torn bits of paper and a dried out, flattened spider. I had kept that clipping since I was a child. So many times I had looked at the small, grainy image of my father and his bandmates – he was the tallest of the three. I had so little of him. My heart palpitated as I looked at the empty boxes and I felt a shaky, hollowness in my chest. I had lost the one thing that could have helped me find him.
The loss made me feel desperate so I turned on my mother. “Did he tell you anything about his family?” I asked, hoping for some forgotten detail that would advance my search. She paused just a moment to consider, and answered “No…” but I kept on.“What about his friends?” They were simple questions but the energy of my need to have them answered was heavy and she could feel it. Still holding photos, her hands dropped to her lap. Her body shifted subtly, weight moving from one hip to the other. She didn’t like talking about this part of her past.
“No… I’m sorry…” she said. “Do you know where he lived?” I kept prying her. “Anything…?” She looked nervous. Maybe she hoped for release from my questions that were pointed and searing. “I’m sorry sweetheart… It wasn’t love, it was the 70’s,” she said as if it explained everything. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, each apology more intent. She was apologizing for her lack of answers but also for the underlying accusation; How could you think I wouldn’t need a father?!
“It’s fine.” I said, but my voice was tight and hard. I wanted her to stop looking at me – to stop apologizing. I was too angry to deal with her need for forgiveness. I felt trapped and suffocated in the over-stuffed love seat. We were close enough to touch but I made sure we didn’t. Her need to release the tension, to connect with me, felt like an invasion. I was stonefaced, rage just below the surface. I could literally feel it radiating off my skin like a burning aura and it repelled her. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, but this time her voice was quiet and strained, almost saying it to herself, her face closing up as if she wanted to shrink and disappear. I had to get out of there. “It’s fine.” I snapped, and turned away to pile the photos back in their boxes. It was my only escape route.