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I’d agreed to clean out some of dad’s stuff after he passed away.  As I looked through his college journals, a picture fluttered free and fell to the floor.  A black and white photo of a young woman leaning against a Harley.  Black stiletto leather boots rose above her knees.  Her skirt was pulled up to eye-opening heights.  Long hair flowed recklessly and a look of carnal aliveness resided in her eyes.  Lace top unbuttoned, exposing a delicious profile of her naked breasts.  As if daring a gust of wind to reveal the hidden curves of my fantasies.  It was hard to tell but it looked like a tattoo of a flower adorned her left breast.

What would dad be doing with such a picture?

I read the faded inscription on the back.  

 To Janice. 

 The most passionate lover a man or woman could ever have.  

 I’m your body and soul.

Love C.

Frowning, I walked over to the window and held the photograph up to the scrutiny of the sun.  Underneath the makeup and the luscious scarlet lips was someone I’d known my whole life.

The photograph fell from bloodless fingers as catatonia slammed rationality from my mind.  The dust of old, unanswered ghosts danced.

Impossible.  Mom? Dad’s faithful companion for the last forty years?  

If she’d had desires other than looking after dad’s needs and raising us kids, I never knew about them.  She never looked anything like that and now that I think of it, I’d never seen pictures of mother in her teens.

Dust specks, highlighted on a ray of sunshine that stole through the window, drifted by.  Denial dug its acrid claws into my throat.  

I had to know. 

Mom sat sipping at her strawberry tea in the nursing home.  She wore her long grey hair in a bun.  Her blouse buttoned to her throat and her skirt reached to well below her knees.  My mother as I always knew her.  The epitome of gentility: cultured, conservative, confined.

The strawberry tea failed to sweeten my mood.  Sweat clung to my palms as the picture burned in my pocket and pulled at the corners of my mouth to speak.   

“Did you clean out your father’s stuff?”  Mom asked.

“Yes, I did, I --” I didn’t know how to begin.  “I -- ah -- came across some of his journals.  I didn’t know dad kept any of his college stuff.”  I fell silent, trying to ground myself.

Mom sipped at her tea.  Her eyes bore that stare mothers always possess when they’re seeking the truth from their kids. But I think she already knew what I was about to ask.

My lip quivered.  

I couldn’t do this.

“Then you found the picture,” she said. 

I nodded, stunned.  The teacup rattled as I set it down.  I reached into my pocket and I gave her the picture.

She sighed and ran her hand, lovingly, over the surface.  “I could lie to you, but I won’t, your father is gone and I’m not long for this realm.  This picture was your dad’s way of keeping me here all these years.”  

She stopped and sat up straighter, a look of haughtiness flashed in her eyes like the girl in the picture.  “I met Janice in high school, she took the picture.  We had nothing in common, but we became friends.  In college we moved in together.  She joined a bike gang and we tried everything imaginable; booze, drugs, sex.”  

I saw a look on her face that I’d never seen before, a haunting aliveness.  The girl in the picture is returning.

“We got stoned one night and next thing I knew we were making love.  One of those experiments we try when we’re young and willing to take risks.  Being a rebel I suppose.  Before I met Janice I’d never even fantasized about sex with a woman, but I enjoyed being with her more than I ever thought possible.  The thrill of living life on the edge, I suppose.”

 I opened my mouth to speak, only nothing came out.  A lifetime of set images came crashing down like a china cabinet full of elegant dinnerware.  “What happened to her? To Janice?” I finally managed.

“She died in a motorcycle accident and a part of me died with her.  At college I also met your dad.  He was everything Janice wasn’t; rich, secure and very confined.  For whatever reason, he chose me to be someone worth saving.”

Those last words hung with bitterness.  “I made the mistake of telling him about my past, although most of him already knew.  Somehow he found this picture and kept it as his insurance that I would never leave.  I didn’t have the courage to escape.  So I gave up.  Eventually, I grew to enjoy the confines of his cage and convinced myself it had kept me alive and sane. I became the prim, proper mother you know.”

I still couldn’t match the woman sitting before me, the mother I’d always known, with the woman in the photograph. How much of her personality, her true self, had she lost in that transformation? Dad was always strict with us kids and mom.  Now I understand why.

She wiped away tears as she unbuttoned her blouse and pushed the edge of her bra aside.

A rose tattoo.  So delicate, so beautiful, yet so foreign to the person bearing it.  I remembered mom rubbing at that spot whenever a moment of anger occurred with us kids or with dad.   

“Janice and I couldn’t get married so on one of our drunken binges we cemented our love by both having a rose tattooed on our breasts.  Your dad hated this tattoo and resented the fact that it gave me the strength to continue living the way he wanted.  I refused to remove it, swearing it would disfigure me.”

Her look of aliveness left like an unfamiliar stranger on silent footsteps as we talked for a little while longer before I left.

Mom passed away the next week.  Before she died we talked much about her past and I really got to know this person called Caroline, my mother.  At her funeral I slipped the picture under her shirt, next to her rose tattoo, where no one except her, me and Janice could find.  As the casket slowly entered the cold earth, I heard the throaty throb of a Harley in the distance.


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