My mother and her two best friends, Evelyn and Bubbles, were inseparable. They knew each other as young wives in Chicago, having been introduced by their husbands who went to high school together. In the photo, Leonard is leaning in toward Evelyn, his wife. He’s smoking a Lucky Strike and smiling for the photographer.
A number ‘2’ sits on their table, perhaps signifying their turn to be photographed. It’s a fancy restaurant and I strain my eyes to find a hint that might lead me to it’s name or location, but all I notice is part of an ‘S’ on the wall behind Leonard, which doesn’t answer my questions.
They were still carefree. Only Teddy, Leonard’s oldest son had been born when the photo was taken.
I remember coming home from grammar school and finding the ladies, my mother, Evelyn, Bubbles, and Ruthie (another friend introduced to the suburban mahjongg clique). They sat around our game table in the den, each with a card of various numbers in front of them and colors arranged like a secret code. They had Bakelite burgundy-brown and cream racks filled with ivory tiles. The click of red dice and tossed tiles filled the room as they shouted out mysterious names like “Four Crak! Three Bam! Eight Dot!” The game lasted until a winner shouted, ‘Mahjongg’
I’d walk into the room and let the women hug me while they complimented me on my ponytail, school outfit, and how much I’d grown. I’d pick at the cashews and eat all the toffee and chocolate-covered turtles sitting in porcelain candy dishes while listening to their gossip about people I didn’t know. They had a sense of familiarity with each other, like an inside joke that only they were privy to.
What they didn’t know that night at the restaurant is that Evelyn would have two more sons, Gerry, who played the drums, and Joel, the youngest and most mischievous. That Bubbles would have a daughter, Lori, and a son, Fred, who would later care for their ailing parents. That my mother’s dear friend, Evelyn, at age 42 would be diagnosed and die from stomach cancer while her children were still young. That Lorraine, my mother, at age 73 would celebrate Passover with friends and on her way back to the car be struck down by an erratic driver as her husband of 52 years looked on in shock.
They didn’t know then that I would become a nurse and a writer who wrote about old photographs. They never knew my hidden talent for sleuthing beginning in my thirties—a proclivity for bringing ghosts back to life with a clearer understanding of who they were and what influences they left behind. If only I appreciated their presence as a young child. If only I had talked with them about their lives. Maybe then I wouldn’t miss them so much.
From the time I became a teenager, I couldn’t wait to escape my home and be on my own. I wanted to be born again. I wanted to be new—have a fresh start. I felt stuck, trapped, had to get out. I wanted my own life, without everyone’s stories in it. One that gave me a clean break from where I came from.
Now I crave for a glimpse of my earlier existence with the people who I ran away from.
I study the photo once more. I look at Gerald sitting next to Bubbles, looking like a hero in his army jacket. Bubbles, with her jet black hair and tanned face and slender legs, always dressed exotically, always in the latest fashions looking like a movie star.
My eyes focus on Evelyn and I wonder why she never let on that she was ill. If I close my eyes, I can hear her voice asking me, “How was school today? Come over and give me a big hug.” Then she’d cup my face with her delicate hands, pinch my cheek and say, “You’re getting cuter everyday.”
As much as the couples were different, they were also similar.
Both Leonard and my father were devastated after their wives died. Their wives had always waited on them—they were homemakers and cooked all their meals. They were lonely widows and married their secretaries within a year who were young enough to be daughters. Both of their second wives were alcoholics who distanced them from their children.
They have all passed away—only the children are left. We get together for dinners, sharing appetizers and talking about our parents, their friendships, quirks, and secrets like the collection of fortunes from Chinese cookies stashed in a kitchen drawer. Or a needlepoint my mother gave Ruthie and after her death, her son found with my mom’s obituary taped to the back of the frame. Or the fact that Leonard was a great photographer later in life, and that my mother and Ruthie’s friendship broke up in later years later because of a rift between the husbands.
We sit around a large game table examining photos we have sorted through—studying them with the same concentration one has before taking an exam. Snacking on chocolates and cashews, we laugh, wanting to uncover, remember, and resurrect our loved ones.