The photo is black and white and warped between planner pages: March 13-19, 2017.
I am guessing she is in grade school or junior high. Her face hasn’t come in yet. She is still a child. Her bangs are straight-cut. There is a slight part to the right of her widow’s peak. Her hair cascades down her back, dark brown as in other childhood photos. Some of it is wrapped around her neck. She is looking back at the photographer, her jaw slightly slack. Her eyes are those of someone interrupted: she only saw the camera as her photo was taken.
Her left hand rests on a sheet of paper on her desk. Her right holds a pencil. Very little in the photograph is in focus, only her and her desk. The other children, two desks, floor, wall, chalkboard, and décor are all blurred out.
The photographer is sitting right behind her in a classroom row. Who were they? When did she get this photo? Why keep it?
Maybe she missed how she used to look: her right ear’s indentation, straight hair, glimpse of white teeth. She was once a child, whom I never knew. She went to grade school, then junior high, and later, high school, all in different places in the Midwest.
Mousy. Confused. I wonder what she knew by then. Had her father died? Had her stepfather begun abusing her? Did she know how to drive?
Did she anticipate dying at forty-six? She once told me that everyone in her family was old, dying, or already dead, which is why we never got to meet them. Yet, they reappeared through the phone line last week.
I can’t stop thinking of her face. Growing up, I believed love could happen to anyone. I rarely, if ever, saw her as beautiful. But here, her face is beautiful. Her skin is clear. She looks soft, naïve. I see no illness in the body. She is a person.
I scrutinize the features in here in my dorm room, lying next to the photo, and I see her. Her nose is straight and long. Her eyes are spaced at the edge of her cartilage. If I allow myself to relax, I can see her in this face. She is no longer a stranger who I have chosen to stare at for an evening. I think this is the longest time I have shared a stare with her.
What did she dream of as a child? Did she want to go to college? Where would she have gone if not for the Air Force? She used to say she wanted to be a psychologist. That she wanted to help people.
Her cuffs and collar are darker than the rest of the fabric of her top. She said her mom used to sew everything, but this looks store-bought.
She hasn’t thought about being twenty-one yet. Doesn’t know what it means.
My mother stares back over her right shoulder at me. She will do this for an eternity, but I will never know what to say to her.
What was she like back then? When was the first time she encountered grief?
Jennifer Gagné (Gagné) is a poet and essayist with a background in French and English and a Bachelor’s of Arts from Wesleyan University where they were recognized as a Wesleyan Poet, Olin Fellow, and recipient of the Scott Prize for Excellence in French. They are currently working as an English as a New Language teacher in Buffalo Public Schools after receiving their Master’s of Science in Urban Childhood Education and TESOL from Canisius College. They live with their senior cat, Chiquita, in Buffalo and hope to pursue a Master’s of Fine Arts in poetry or nonfiction in 2022.