Around the time that my father finally decided to end his marriage with my mother, just about anyone could have told you that her grasp of reality was slipping. She was a pathological liar, she was sleeping with at least three different men, would accuse her children of various slights, and exhibited behavior that would make a whore blush.
Among the things that my mother did around this time, one in particular still baffles me. She visited us in the house my brothers and I shared with my father, collected all the pictures of us she could find and took them away. Everything, baby pictures, first communion pictures, class pictures, even random pictures at family gatherings, vanished in a frenzy of obsessive activity. If you were to search every nook and cranny in our house, you’d be hard pressed to find any photographic evidence that my brothers and I existed.
We had no idea what she wanted with them, preferring to imagine she wanted these still images of the lives of her children so she wouldn’t forget them. Of course, had we known what she intended to do, we might have troubled ourselves to stop her from taking them out of the house.
With possibly two trashbags filled with photographs, she absconded to her lair and burned them all. I’m not sure whether she fed them one at a time into a fire in her fireplace, or piled them high on her lawn, doused them with lighter fluid and sent them up in a towering bonfire, but whatever her method, in her madness to hurt my father, she destroyed the photographic history of her children from birth through that present day.
It is an odd sensation to go to a friend’s house and see their history displayed in frames on walls, or in albums on coffee tables — gap toothed smiles of youthful antics at birthday parties, family gatherings, or trips to the zoo — and know that no such record exists of your own path through the world.
In high school for health class, we were asked to bring in baby photos so that we might, as a class, guess which baby picture belonged to which classmate. Mine was the only one missing and to say that my teacher took it hard is an understatement. It took a month of letters and face-to-face meetings with my father to have her remove the "F" I was given for that assignment. She would change the failing grade to an incomplete, mostly because she refused to believe a mother could do such a thing.
My father did manage to scrounge up a few photos of us as children over the last 25 years. Some he gathered from relatives and friends, others he might have stored somewhere else, unknowingly saving them from certain destruction. One, maybe two photos of me as a baby exist, a few more of my older brother, and many more of my youngest brother who was only five when my mother recreated the sacking of Rome via Polaroid and Kodak.
I wonder what went through her head, if anything, as she systematically destroyed our childhood. I’m sure she can block out the physical abuse she hashed out to us, perhaps even soften the hard edges from the words she used to communicate with us, and even downplay the mindgames she played on us… but how do you ignore burning a family history?
A few years ago, the father of an ex-girlfriend asked me about my parents and I explained that my father lived in San Diego. He asked about my mother and when he couldn’t be deterred from that line of questioning, I told him I hadn’t spoken to my mother since around 1987. He responded with the usual song and dance about the importance of family and forgiveness. Anytime someone gives me this tired old chestnut, I most often see flames dancing on the periphery of my vision… It is easy to tell them that I understand the importance of family, but some things people are capable of are unforgivable.