“A flirt, with ripe apples in her cheeks.” That’s how my father had described my mother during his many retellings of the first time he saw her. Then he’d pinch her cheeks to force a flush. She always smirked at that story and the face-pinching that went with it.
My mother didn’t have naturally rosy cheeks and I couldn’t imagine her flirting. I figured Dad had embellished this story as he had done with other tales of family folklore.
Yet, here was a photograph of her that showed a young woman, all smiles for her companion, a man who was not my father. They were feeding each other strawberries. I was surprised at the date written on the back: June 12, 1955.
I tucked the photo back into the Complete Poems of Robert Frost and packed it into a carton with the other items she requested; her high school yearbook, family albums, my baby book, a collection of gardening journals, engraved stationery.
By the time I brought the carton downstairs, the moving van had arrived.
“Shall we take this keepsake box with us, Mother?”
She patted the carton. “Yes, good idea. I don’t want it to get knocked about by the movers.”
In the car, we chatted about the apartment my husband and I had set up for her at the back of our house. She needed help with things, now—shopping, housework—and I hoped this would be a chance for us to get closer. She had been a responsible mother, but a distant one, even though I was an only child.
When we stopped for lunch at a café, I brought up the photograph. “Mother, a photo of you eating strawberries with a man fell out of the poetry book.”
She looked alarmed. “You didn’t throw it away, did you?”
“No, I put it back in the book. Who was he?”
She wriggled in her chair and looked down at her salad plate. “Peter.”
“It’s dated one month before you married Dad. That seems awfully close to your wedding, Mother, for such an intimate photo with another man.”
She continued to look at her plate and spoke softly. “We were going steady. Something happened and the relationship ended. Times were different, then. People weren’t as liberal-thinking as they are today.”
“You became pregnant with Peter’s child?”
She nodded. “He said he wasn’t ready for marriage, couldn’t take on the financial burden.
That photograph was taken the day Peter graduated from college. Robert Frost delivered the commencement address.”
She looked up from her plate. “Frost signed the poetry book for me.”
“How did Dad fit in?”
“They both courted me at the same time, but I fell for Peter. After he left me, your father came around and proposed. My mother knew about my condition and said your father was a decent man, I would be lucky to marry him, but she insisted that I tell him about my situation. So, I did. He said he didn’t care. It would be our child; we’d be a family.”
“What happened to the baby?”
“A few weeks after we married, I miscarried, but we stayed together, anyway. I owed it to him. Two years later, you were born and we had our family, after all.”
“Did you ever regret marrying Dad? Were you tempted to look up Peter after Dad died? Or, even before Dad died?” I knew I was crossing a line, but I had to ask these questions.
She looked directly into my eyes. “Your father and I built a good life for the three of us. I never tried to find Peter, but I kept the photograph as a reminder that I had gained more than I lost.”
At that moment, I wanted to reach across the table and pinch her cheeks.
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