I have three memories, a photograph for one. I’ll tell the story:
Dancing in her shadows, I stand in the middle. In between them, my mother and my father. It is probably a Sunday, considering the backdrop of the park. My parents often took my brothers and I to play at parks after mass, for it was one of the few recreational activities we could afford on the weekend. It is probably also a Sunday considering my mother’s long dress, the color of it recalling a hue only usually achieved after smoke has made its way into a summer skyline. Its color, however, might also just indicate the wear of the photograph as evinced by the missing pieces and stains on the left hand corner. The stains and chipped parts of the photograph almost present themselves as a line of clouds.
The field we stand on is quite empty as others wander behind our triangulated bodies. My mother, her face hidden by her hair and her facing me, stands behind me, either to cautiously ensure that I do not fall as I make my way to my father, or simply to chase after me as she still does. She is on her toes, ready to start right behind me, and I feel the weight shifting in her feet, back and forth, back and forth like a salsa step. My father lures me in with a colorful beach ball, waiting for me to come reach for him. He stands erect and almost still. His torso turned out and away from me, his billowing shirt showing more movement than his body does. I cannot really anticipate his movement when I revisit the image, though I think he is trying to assess mine. His arm becomes most animated as he looks down at me while holding the beach ball tantalizingly. He doesn’t anticipate a possible fall from me; his stance suggests that he knows I will, in fact, make it to him. That I will arrive, whether or not I get the ball. I look at the photograph wondering if I ever do.
I’m in the middle, running towards my father. That is the direction at least indicated by my stance. But as I look at the photograph again, I refuse that movement. I look ready to run forward, but I also look ready to step backward or forward with my “leading” foot, as I’ve now come to associate the movement of my pivoting leg with my dancing salsero practice. That left foot can suggest a running start, but it can also illustrate a pivoting motion, forwards or backwards. On the margins of my mother’s shadow I might twirl back. I might turn back to face her already facing me. I might chase her too, as I do each time I dance and desire to lead and to follow, to incorporate the movements of the feminine into the masculinist disciplining imposed on my queer body.
When first looking at this photograph, what is apparent to me is my arm. Initially, when I first saw this photograph on my 21st birthday (my mother had included it in a birthday album she had assembled as a gift), I had assumed my arm was reaching for the ball. Now that possibility is offset if one considers the direction of my gaze. My head is turned to the side almost looking back at my mother, but it also seems to suggest a moment of recognition with the person behind the camera. I reach out to the photographer almost more than I reach for the ball. Not more or less, however, than how I imagine myself reaching back to my mother with my steps.
I don’t have much recollection of this photograph as a memory, but its material presence in the album my mother made me, its narrating of my complex relationship with my mother and father, is redirected by the subject behind the camera. For while I do not recall the photograph, I recall the person’s name my mother expired when I asked her who took it:
“Your Tia Veronica, of course,” she said.
So while I don’t have any recollection of the “event” happening in the photograph, I have two distinct memories or snapshots of my aunt. She is, I always say confidently, my first memory. In some ways, she is more of a photograph to me than the one I now hold as a bookmark.
In my first image, my Tia stands tall. Her black hair cascades down below her waistline. I perceive her as being tall although my mother continues to remind me she hardly grew to be five feet tall due to health complications derived from a missing valve in Veronica’s heart. She stands in front of my grandmother’s doorway, and the light from the outside turns her into a silhouette, and just beyond her outline I see the row of rosebushes in my grandmother’s front yard.
In the second one she is on a hospital bed. The sheets are a pastel green, like the faded grass in my photograph, and her gown blends into it so that her face draws most of my attention. She has a mask, also green, over her mouth and nose. Her hair does not cascade any longer. It is hidden now, and it is perhaps why she stops appearing tall to me. The cascading hair that had once felt so ongoing has now stopped by the reorientation of her body on a bed. She is 17, and that will be the last time I see her image. I will lose more to capture, and a week from that image my parents will lose the person standing between them and across from me and this memory. Across from our photograph.
Veronica is not seen in the picture, but she is all I see when I look at it. She becomes the frame, a connecting line between my mother and I. For it is the moment of identification with her that draws me to reach back to my mother, as she choreographs my stepping back into the shadowed grass, like a hinge. When I look at and hold the photograph, I see a movement and a story. It is the story of the only family member that maintained a genuine friendship with my parents after they eloped. It is the story of my mother’s sister who died at the age of 17, though she were not to live or capture anything after one week of being born according to my grandmother’s physician. It is the story of Veronica capturing and choreographing my life: my hand, signaling a feminine flare that would in adolescence register as something to be tamed; my father’s hand, displaying both an attachment to him and his still body always awaiting my reach. My mother’s waltzing walk behind me, signaling our sometimes very parallel, sometimes very divergent lives that always require us to dance within and without our merging margins and shadows: her as a divorced woman in a very Catholic family; mine as a queer Latino male, both of us inhabiting a world that often imposes limits where we must renegotiate our next step with the other.
I have three memories, a photograph for one. The photograph becomes the pronounced step forward or back in a split 8 count in salsa. That’s how I hear the picture. That’s how I hear Veronica’s finger click the shutter. If I were to anticipate my mother’s next movement, her right foot might swing first as she leads me with her following foot, Veronica’s step in time perhaps.