My cousin posted a picture of my mom at the holidays. In the picture, Mom stares out the window, past the porch of our childhood home, into the woods.

Mom’s hair is grey and sun blonde now. Without resting, she rests her chin on her hand. Her eyes squint as if she’s staring into a floodlight, or as if she is in pain.

Maybe we, my brother, my sister and I, are the sources of her pain. Maybe we stare her down from memory. Or maybe it’s from some deeper source: from the rise of her expectations, from their friction with each sight and sound – each the evidence of the world’s violation.

Her face is thin and tired beneath the tan. Her expression is without demand. When she yelled or tried to implement rules, she would fail by breaking them herself. And she only tried when she was angry, when the world disagreed and she felt it.

And she was forgetful. We would come home to locked doors and snow, more than once climbing in through the bathroom window. We were blamed for the snow on the bathroom floor and for the heat bill.

Perfume in the stale, old-food smell of the minivan and the warmth from the dashboard fans in winter. She drove me to ballet or hiphop on Saturday mornings. I see her wide eyes in the rearview mirror, her lips smacking, applying an umber shade of lipstick. Her image is infused and I will not forget it.



Still Face

I don’t know if I read it into my memory.

She would sit at the table, sorting receipts or reading, or clearing out the accumulated contents of her purse. I would be outside or in the living room, playing or drawing or coming home from school, dropping my backpack  on the floor with the front door slamming shut behind me.

She would be there in front of me, focusing through her glasses on whatever she was seeing. I would interrupt her to show her a drawing or to tell her, unprompted, about the fascinating events of my earlier grades. About playground drama, the scandals or how I was mad at a friend, or confused.

“Mom,” I’d say.

“Mom,” I’d say. I know at least once when I tried to show her a drawing she said, ‘that’s nice dear,’ without looking up.

But some or most times, she wouldn’t answer me. I was so curious then about whatever she was doing, and a little incensed that there might be something more important to my mother than me. Maybe she explained, but I don’t remember what she did that resulted in her strained and exclusive attention.

In those moments when she didn’t respond to me, I would look at how her hair fell after she ran her fingers through it, or out the back window into the yard. Or I would look down at the pages before her and try to make sense of the shapes. They seemed like long moments. That’s what concerns me.

I learned in linguistics about this phenomenon called the ‘still face’ effect. Children whose mothers do not engage with them for a period of roughly three minutes become ‘sober,’ or anxious, and then try to stimulate in their mothers the same standard pattern of interaction. The phenomenon showed how social infants are in their attempts to re-engage their mothers, and has been widely demonstrated and used to investigate the limits of an infant’s perspective.

My mother was depressed. And I know that now. Because the phenomenon occurs with depressed parents, I wonder whether those moments I remembered are remembered because of her unresponsive, still face. Because the frequency of still face reactions children experience is thought to be predictive of later attachment styles, I wonder if those were the moments when I inherited her depression.

I can’t know whether she was in pain in those specific moments, or if she was simply ignoring an annoying and overactive toddler. So when I sort through those moments, built of sparse memories and contradictions, I realize I don’t know what’s true.

I start to fear unconscious replication, but find that I can’t acknowledge everything. Maybe the solution is to practice intentional silence.