- At age nineteen, Natasha Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother.
- Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the pulls of life and death and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became.
- Here the Pulitzer Prize winning poet explores the profound experience of pain, loss, and grief as an entry point into understanding the tragic course of her mother’s life and the way her own life has been shaped by a legacy of fierce love and resilience.
Three weeks after my mother is dead I dream of her: We walk a rutted path, an oval track around which we are making our slow revolution: side by side, so close our shoulders nearly touch, neither of us speaking, both of us in our traces. Though I know she is dead I have a sense of contentment, as if she’s only gone someplace else to which I’ve journeyed to meet her. The world around us is dim, a backdrop of shadows out of which, now, a man comes. Even in the dream I know what he has done, and yet I smile, lifting my hand and speaking a greeting as he passes. It’s then that my mother turns to me, then that I see it: a hole, the size of a quarter, in the center of her forehead. From it comes a light so bright, so piercing, that I suffer the kind of momentary blindness brought on by staring at the sun — her face nothing but light ringed in darkness when she speaks: “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” I know I am not meant to answer and so we walk on as before, rounding the path until we meet him again. This time he’s come to finish what he started: holding a gun, he is aiming at her head. This time I think I can save her. Is it enough to throw myself in the bullet’s path? Shout “No!”? I wake to that single word, my own voice wrenching me from sleep. But it’s my mother’s voice that remains, her last question to me—“Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?”—a refrain.
The last image of my mother, but for the photographs taken of her body at the crime scene, is the formal portrait made only a few months before her death. She sat for it in a mass-market studio known for its competent but unremarkable pictures: babies coaxed to laughter by hand puppets, children in stair-step formation wearing matching Christmas sweaters—all against a common backdrop. Sometimes it’s a sky-blue scrim that looks as if it’s been brushed with a feather, or an autumn scene of red and yellow leaves framing a post-and-rail fence. For moodier portraits, as if to convey a sense of seriousness or formal elegance, there’s the plain black scrim.
She was forty years old. For the sitting she’d chosen a long-sleeved black sheath, the high collar open at the throat. She does not look at the camera, her eyes fixed at a point in the distance that seems to be just above my head, making her face as inscrutable as it always was— her high, elegant forehead, smooth and unlined, a billboard upon which nothing is written. Nor does she smile, which makes the cleft in her chin more pronounced, her jawline softly squared above her slender neck. She sits perfectly erect without looking forced or uncomfortable. Perhaps she intended to look back on it years later and say, “That’s where it began, my new life.” I am struck with the thought that this is what she must have meant to do: document herself as a woman come this far, the rest of her life ahead of her.
The thought of that has always filled me with despair, and so for years I chose other stories to tell myself. In one version, she knew she would soon be killed. I know she had gone to see a psychic for entertainment with some friends from work; she’d told me as much, though she never said what she’d learned. Around that time she had also taken out several life insurance policies, and so for years I told myself she must have been preparing for the inevitable, making sure—in her last few weeks—that her children would be taken care of after she was gone.
In reality, if the psychic told her anything it was most likely something promising about her future—romance, perhaps, or hopeful predictions about the new job she’d just taken as personnel director for human resources at the county mental health agency. I know that most likely the life insurance policies were simply one of the benefits of that job: she’d have signed up for them during the open enrollment period for new employees. Still, the narrative of her making plans, stoically aware of what was to come, comforts me. I can’t bear to think of the alternative, can’t bear to think of her in that horrible moment, the sudden realization of her imminent death after allowing herself to believe she had escaped. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between her hope and her pragmatism.
Hindsight makes me see the portrait differently now— how gloomy it is—as if the photographer meant to produce something artistic, rather than an ordinary studio portrait. It’s as if he made of the negative space around her a frame to foreground some difficult knowledge: the dark past behind her, her face lit toward a future upon which her gaze is fixed.
And yet—undeniably—something else is there, elegiac even then: a strange corner of light just behind her head, perhaps the photographer’s mistake, appearing as though a doorway has opened, a passage through which, turning, she might soon depart. Looking at it now, with all I know of what was to come, I see what else the photographer has done. He’s shot her like this: her black dress black as the scrim behind her so that, but for her face, she is in fact part of that darkness, emerging from it as from the depths of memory.
Extracted from Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoirby Natasha Trethewey (Bloomsbury) distributed in South Africa by Jonathan Ball | R320