In the picture, she poses almost in profile, her smoothly brushed dark hair framing her face in soft waves. She is wearing a navy polka dotted dress with a white collar that primly encircles her neck. It is the only professional photo she ever had taken, when she was in her early twenties. The cheek facing the camera is smooth and tinted a powdery pink, a colorization of a black and white photograph. She is lovely and demurely smiling, a picture of 1940’s middle class success: graduated from high school, a stable job as a bookkeeper, waiting for life to take her further, beyond where she is now.
My mother grew up in the thirties, a twin born to her mother at age forty, and thus much younger than her other siblings. Her father was a farmer, poor like everyone else, resigned to hard work and predisposed to distrust enjoyment. Her mother worked alongside him, steady and strong, but neither of them with the energy or time to invest in her or her twin brother, born late.
She remembers little fun, only work. Few childhood memories have survived the eighty year span since then. Only one is vivid.
“We went sledding.”
Children do not register detail, only sensation or flashing moments, so the detail is mine to fill in, my task to re-create the story. These are really my memories, pulled from my own childhood, applied to hers, an attempt to vicariously experience the swooping descent of sledding.
So. It is a winter day, a Saturday, and they wake to snow newly fallen, fresh, smooth, and unmarred, sparkling silver in the light of a sun risen but frozen, a white disk like just another snowball waiting to be hurled. From the barn they drag their sled, a homemade wooden one which has survived seven earlier children’s daring dives down other winters’ slopes. Some of the boards are loose, a couple splintered, but they hold together between two metal tracks, rusted in the frame but slick silver on the runners.
They pile on, her brother first, head first and flat on the creaking boards. She sandwiches on top of him, the big buttons of her thick homemade coat pressing into her sternum, her arms tucked at her side, gripping with mittened hands his coat below his armpits. A push off with a rubber boot and they are flying, the snow plowed up by their descent blizzarding into their upturned faces. Their bodies compress into each other a bit more with every bump on the decline, jolting their lungs to expel foggy exhalations that are left like clouds behind them as they hurtle down.
I think they shrieked at the thrill and the terror of it, hearts pounding faster than their speed, loving something about the abandon of the ride, the sensation of not being in control despite his hands clutching the steering bar. I’m not sure I ever heard my uncle laugh, and for mom laughing too was atypical, so sober were their childhoods, packed with chores, silent Sundays, rigid respect. But this Saturday they are laughing, his chest heaving up and down on the sled, hers thumping into his back, adding to the joyous pain that only eases when the slope levels out and they are spilled to a stop, their sprawls creating fallen snow angels on the ground.
Then up again, almost instantly, shaking flattened shards of snow out of their pant legs and tramping back up the hill for another ride. How many times did they repeat the cycle, each time working to increase their speed, to go further and faster on the descent, before their longest ride, the one that hurtled them into a barbed wire fence, the rusty prongs ripping a bloody path through my mother’s pale, cold cheek?
They were poor, but they could have gathered the money to pay for stitches. Instead, they washed the shreds of flesh and patted them into place, bandaging the wound, hoping for healing. Instead, when the bandage was removed, strands of scar had laced the mangled shards together into a jagged geometric, a lightning bolt raging in the taut hollow of her cheek, the bas relief of reddened ridges the smolder after the strike.
I don’t remember when I first heard that story, but I know it was in answer to my question about her scar, a curious question asked when I was perhaps the age she was when she acquired it, a question unrestricted by the tact that would halt anyone older, a tact that would stifle the question but not the stare. That one question, so many years ago, diffused the scar, melted its fiery force on her face. After that, I never saw it again. In fact, it always startled me when someone meeting her for the first time—a college roommate, my husband-to-be—would ask about it, because it flickered and faded whenever she turned her face to me.
But she, of course, still saw it with every look in the mirror, traced it with her fingers every time she rested her cheek in her palm. It is etched in her mind’s eye even as she sits for her only professional photo, as she carefully turns that cheek from the camera’s blinding flash. Behind her demure smile is the nagging worry that this tentacle scar will nudge away any potential beau who might come near. She is getting older. All her friends are married. She is in her mid-twenties and is not.
Now she is much older. Her skin, thinned to a papery translucence, sags and creases into furrows, creating a matrix that absorbs the scar into its larger pattern. Now when I hold her head in my hands to kiss her forehead, her skull feels fragile and light between my fingers, her skin a mere drape over curve of bone, socket of eye, ridge of cheek. Now the scar is only a delicate fold in the drape, like heat lightning flickering in soft, soundless night, no longer a lightning bolt that blazes livid against a smooth sky. It is stilled between my hands, its thunder muffled, my fingers smoothing the edges of its dying fire.