There is a photo that sits, dusty and generally unnoticed , over my mom’s bed next to mementos of her travels and souvenirs brought back from mine and others, family photos, and “art” pieces made by her children out of clay or popsicle sticks over the years. It’s the cover of a pre-made greeting card, and there’s a note inside from the photographer saying she had enjoyed meeting us. We had few visitors at Jim’s Place in the desert outside of Parker, Arizona, and when I try to imagine what they thought when they arrived I smile. Did Jim and Bobbi Jo bring friends out there to show us off, like a circus attraction? Did they prove their generosity by parading the family of vagrants they had living on their desert land, marvel at our hard life and self-sufficiency? I don’t know. I know this woman who took the photo was moved by us, these hardscrabble little desert rat children in the middle of the punishing heat of the Mojave. We are in a posed group, the four of us, on white plastic chairs or standing. We look scruffy, and so very young. My sister, the youngest, must have been 2 or 3. We wear torn and dirty thrift store clothes, and at least one of the boys wears a once-white baseball cap with the velcroed-on shade flap for the back of his neck, patented by my mother’s brother as one of his frequent get-rich-quick schemes that never quite panned out. Our smiles are shy but proud, as if we never considered that others would look at us as people to pity.
I don’t even remember if the woman and her husband were friends of the landowners or people who happened to be driving by. We could hear vehicles coming almost as soon as they pulled off the highway onto the dirt road, 40 miles away. It was a hum in the air, a faint change in the atmosphere before we could hear the sound clearly. The county road was about ¾ of a mile from our trailer. We could be at the turnoff to Jim’s Place to meet visitors long before a vehicle traversed the miles from pavement. Did Dad sit out there with a chair and a beer, creating a figure that the curious would have to stop to inspect? Or did he meet them in Parker at a bar or the convenience store? I’ll ask my mother, and see how her memory as an adult differs from my perspective as a child. I will ask her if she was embarrassed for people to see her this way, if she worried that others might think she wasn’t caring for her children properly. She kept us as clean as you can keep active kids in the dirt of the desert, kept us clothed and fed and healthy. But she’d lived in “normal” society, in a house with two working parents in a neighborhood in a town where others watched how you behaved, judged you by how you dressed. She must have felt a kind of shame knowing how others might think of her. If not how other perceived how she cared for her children, did she consider what they thought about why she put up with the domineering treatment of the man she’d chosen to share her life with? It was apparent even to strangers that my mother was a second-class citizen and not a partner, blatant in Dad’s gruff commands to fetch him a beer, in the way he talked down to her and told rather than discussed.
I imagine this stranger with her clean clothes and fancy camera asking to take our picture, and us gathering around as if it were a fun occasion instead of a wildlife safari opportunity. I’m sure she was a mother, and tenderly gathering this trophy as a vacation highlight instead of as a hunter of photos of the disadvantaged. I myself, now, from the comfort of my middle-class life, would have taken the same photo of us or of children in Africa with flies at the corners of their eyes.