By Elena Lipsiea

I don’t remember the warm chai cream colored fabric around my waist that evening so much as I sense it from the photo. My three or four-year-old form obscured by the uneven blanket my mother’s sister had crafted wound snug across my hips. A full skirt of rural prairie royalty. Reaching above the circling, scratching fabric rests my pale pink nightgown, ruffled modestly across a square pinned collar guiding lines from left shoulder down across my undistinguishing chest, then up and onto the right. The just-barely matted cotton modestly cinching at my soft-haired neck, reaching from parallel ruffles across heart-centered breaths.

A gaze up, my face is framed by rounded chin, my skin’s healthy brightness only possessed by cheeks unscathed by time and obligations disguised as duty or opportunity. My deep brown eyes wide upon the camera lens, unashamed by their capture, pupils unidentifiable from surrounding shade. These, my harshest parts, midnight and focused. A few fingertips higher my presumably freshly washed strands fall in coppers and ashy browns, tinged with promising strawberry complexities. Fresh produce mysteries, my future more potently resting in these waved curls than chubby child palms superstitiously outstretched. Yet here in this nighttime shot, my hands cling tightly offering up the ivory vase within which a single red rose grows high. Light laced buds on either side, their necks the intricate collars preventing too much indecency. Lips deep and alluring, love promises not yet broken within the floral grin.  

Behind me rests my arm-leaning father. His body supported by muscle and earth and the outdated powder blue carpet my mother had yet to busy herself with replacing. It was just the three of us then and in my mind’s eye I see happy. Our trio’s cozy breathing life into a living room protecting bodies from February’s frigid Midwest temps beyond the wall-sized window panes.

I look into this Kodak picture and find the captured seconds I cannot remember alone. Yet other mental stories surface as I curl up into my small self’s corners. The duets danced in and around this same living room with my restaurant-owing papa. Peter, Paul, and Mary lulling folksy chords beneath us. “Puff the Magic Dragon” eliciting groundless twirls and soft toddler hands across a mostly absent neck. The golden lighting offered by dying lightbulbs painting scenes far more gloried than reality would report.

But the irony of my mom’s slightly younger, slightly fuller face behind the camera that evening, absent by photobook records, does not pang me little. She was as steady as the lamplight glow, full and warm, and expanding ever. My mother still abiding, whose hands held mine through her dad’s handcrafted crib made for me. The good morning hugs and “You are my Sunshine” serenades atop cinnamon sugar toast and tart apple juice glasses always there, always reminding, remaining.

But these days I think on Elvis Presley and Ray LaMontagne, James Taylor always around, because he was the one who praised them with CD collections and excited monologues otherwise unengaged. The words and interests and seemingly sophisticated ideals I leaned into during 7-day work weeks, weekends spent away, and those evenings I would only later learn were weathered in single-room bars where men needn’t watch their gaze. And now I stretch into jobs and assure across telephone lines and prefer to speak careful thought sentences, despite starkly divided moral and political and lived perspectives. I don’t break or wrinkle, doubt or curve my spine when he is near me. Because right now I have this mostly picture-evidenced relationship and beneath miles and divides, reaching across adulthood and independence remains a wanting fragmented memory waiting assignment: fact or fiction.

Gazing up beyond the old photo all this stops in a wondering: whether he loves me shallow, selfish like the single stem’s deceptively deep shades, undoubtedly chosen check-out quick that 1990s Valentine’s Day, or if somewhere uncaptured there is a memory between us with my hand held tight across stand still granddaddy-crafted bars running skyward. Between long, stern silence and North Dakota cold.