To start from scratch. To start over.
I imagine my mother cutting out photos. In the trash can, halves and pieces of images of a man named Miguel, of his face. In the album, under the transparent plastic, my mother places an image of his son Daniel, carried in arms by Miguel now without a face. She puts another photograph on top, so that the cut goes unnoticed. Next to her, a small case, a vanity case. From which she takes out photos.
She looks at them, selects them, cuts them and arranges them in the white pages of the album until it’s filled. That album that my mother created many years ago is now in front of me. It is the only one, among many family albums, in which she is the main protagonist. On the back cover there is a faded post-it that reads: “Older photos of mine and of young Daniel”. The album contains photos of her from the ages of 2 to 22 years old, when she had her first son: Daniel (1981), and some others of the first years of my brother, and her as a mother.
She sits next to me. She points to a photo and tells me that the faceless person that is carrying Daniel in his arms is Miguel. He is the biological father of Daniel –this we learned it already several years ago. We younger brothers never suspected Daniel could have another father. Of course this didn’t change things. He remained as much a brother as he had always been. What did change was the family history, the way in which it had been told to us, omitting this detail. We learned that my mother had married, for the first time, a man who was not our father, in 1980, and that Daniel was born within a year. The marriage lasted very little; my mother would split from that man in the middle of her pregnancy, after a relationship that had lasted 6 years as an unmarried couple.
Years later, while my mother and I look at the album, I can see clearly how my mom chose the photos in a way that reflected a story in which it could be assumed that my father was Daniel’s biological father. The way she did this was by omitting a part of her life: the photos of her relationship, of her first wedding and of her life with her first husband. The album she made had to be coherent with the family history that was told to us at the time. But now my mother points out for me some small things of the album that I had never noticed, and that contradict that first family history. She shows me a photograph of a house where she had lived with her parents in Desamparados. Outside of the house, there is a car; it is Miguel’s car. I ask her if she took out many of his photos, and she answers that she had cut several out, but that there were others elsewhere. She then shows me a photo of her, and behind her, almost hidden, is Miguel.
While we speak, I ask her if she thinks she lost many of the photographs she had while moving from one house to another, or for any other reason. She says no and keeps going through the album. At this point, we have reached the photos of Daniel’s birth, and it becomes evident to me that there is a very important event missing in the story: her first wedding. I ask her about the wedding photos. She tells me she almost doesn’t have any, but then she thinks for a moment, and tells me she has kept some aside; she tells me to wait while she goes look for them.
She comes back with a small suitcase that I had never seen before, a “vanity case”, she tells me. It is full of photographs, but also of other things: memories, ornaments and letters. Inside are all the photos from her first wedding that are missing in the album. With these new images, another story emerges. Now she tells me more about Miguel. She shows me many pictures in which he has been cut out. However, she stops at one in which they are hugging at the beach. The only one that was in one piece; she said they looked good, with a certain nostalgia. She also mentions that it seems incredible to her that they dated for 6 years, and then lasted just a year married. She had gotten pregnant three months after the marriage, although initially she didn’t want to because they were both studying. The pill had made her sick and the doctor recommended her to use the rhythm method, but didn’t explain what that was to her.
She also tells me about the serenade she got before the wedding, and of a niece who was like daughter to her and Miguel, and with whom, ironically, they had spent more time than with their own son. Other photos are of the things they had collected for when they moved in together. She shows me that photos of her wedding; her dress and veil done by her mom; some photos of Miguel’s parents posing next to my grandparents; and we read the invitation for the wedding, which in the end says: “after the religious ceremony we will offer a toast at the athenaeum Domus dei to their eternal happiness”, to which my mom responds: “yeah, right”, and we laugh.
There are also photographs of the apartment where my mother lived after her marriage, where Miguel didn’t always live because they soon split apart. The photographs are from December 1980, and the wedding had been the previous February. By then, my mom was pregnant with Daniel, and separated from her husband. She says she probably made those photos of the apartment when she was about to leave to go live with her mother, since her father had died a few months back. They are photographs of the apartment space, of the furniture she had, of her kitchen, her living room, of the space that was her home for almost a year, a place she inhabited during her pregnancy, her separation from her husband and her father’s death.
A little more joyfully, she speaks of Álvaro, a boyfriend she had after splitting up with Miguel and after Daniel’s birth. The photos are from a trip to the beach; they both had kids of similar ages. My mother tells me that when she dies I’ll be able to say that I have seen the vanity case and what is inside it, which makes me think that she probably hadn’t showed it to anyone else in the past. It is her story. Her most intimate story; beyond us, her family; it is her personal space. A space which, despite being an affirmation of autonomy, must have been heavy to carry alone.
The photos of the vanity case speak of my mother’s need for creating a place for those memories; a place to preserve them, take care of them and not let them die, despite the pressure resulting from the stigma of an unwanted pregnancy, divorce and the creation of a new family. My mother’s silence allowed Daniel to start from scratch; to start over. In a circumstance in which he could have been singled out, Daniel could start over with the same advantage as other children. A silence product of pressure, indeed, but also a product of love and care.