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Alice at 21

Alice, January 1926

Scanning old photographs for my family archive, I resurrected this of my mother at twenty-one, three weeks after the birth of my oldest sister Wilma and three years before I was born. I look at her face in wonder. This young woman, barely more than a girl here, the same person whom I last saw five years ago as she was dying at eighty-eight, was all my life my very source, not a person at all in the usual sense but a mythical figure, omnipotent, ageless and immortal. No matter the differences and disagreements we might have had throughout my life.

In my earliest memories of her, she was only vaguely separate from me, the most prominent thing in my consciousness, the base from which all other objects and beings sprang. I barely remember my two sisters trying to teach me to say "mother" as I resisted, for she was not that word to me. I think my word, and it was not so much a word as a primal sound, a call like that of a kitten seeking its own mother, was "Baboo." Perhaps it was, in fact, only the result of my trying to mimic my sisters saying "Mother" or "Mommy." But a sacred word is not given up easily.

How can this girl be she? This open, happy face, newly emerged from lifeís mystery, is only beginning to learn about life, experiencing the freedom of choice that marks an adult in our culture. What an exciting time of life for her! She had arrived at that pinnacle of womanhood, a wife and mother. Her next sixty-seven years, full as most lives are of struggle and pain and joy and comfort, were a yet-unopened treasure chest sitting there on that wooden porch beside her. Her dreams were pasted all over that chest, decorating its plain surfaces with gay colors and innocent hope, oblivious to the reality inside.

Two of my own granddaughters have already passed that momentous age of beginnings, that passage from childhood into womanhood. I think of them as small and vulnerable, and I fear sometimes for their safety. The fact that both are strong and competent, one already a mother of two, impresses me only a little. A grandfatherís prerogative. But how do I integrate that with my deepest gut-image of my own mother? Itís no wonder that cultures have worshipped goddesses and prayed to them for protection and sustenance. The mother image is embedded, imprinted in us from the very beginning of our lives.

The mystery of Alice, January 1926, this snapshot of a young woman, may be unanswerable. It may be just one of those things that shape us and remind us forever that we didnít invent the universe.

Click here for another memory of Alice

Donald Skiff, October 27, 1999

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