The story I always told was about the time my mother and I got lost in the woods. But this, I realize now, was not the only story, or the whole story. When I think back on it, I realize that in fact the story I always told was not really the story at all. There was a piece missing. It was the part about what happened when we got to the waterfall, the part about my mother taking out her Minolta and asking me to take off my clothes, to show the camera my just-ripening body. I had not forgotten this piece; I had simply wedged it right out of the story. The part where I said no, but finally, I said yes.
It was shortly before my mother left for good. Before she moved to Maine and left my little brother and me in Canada with our dad. She was a photographer now, in this time of the hike and the waterfall. She was finding herself. Her hair was short and permed because she was a feminist. She didn’t wear a bra anymore. She went on canoeing trips with other women and they ran around naked in the wilderness and snapped pictures of themselves all standing in a line stark naked with their arms around each other.
When she came home from that first canoe trip, my mother asked if I wanted to call her DeAnna instead of Mom. She was tan and happy [End Page 79] in a way I had not seen her before. I squirmed in my seat, avoiding her gaze. “No,” I said. I had saved all my monarch butterflies for her, the ones I had found as caterpillars on the milkweeds in the fields behind our house. They had broken out of their chrysalides, all ten of them, while she was gone, and I saved them in a box so she could see, feeding them sugar water to keep them alive. My mother was the one who taught me that you can make butterflies behave for photographs if you first put them in the refrigerator for a little while. Not that I ever did that; usually I released them as soon as their wings were dry.
I was a bean pole of a girl—tall and angular, just blossoming little buds up top, still bare as a plum down below. My girlfriends in sixth grade carried strawberry Bonne Belle Lip Smackers to school in their book bags and we played kissing tag with the boys at recess. We snapped each other’s training bras in the hallway. We read the steamy parts of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret aloud to each other when the teacher left the room. We hid behind the piled gymnastic mats or the pommel horse or the crates full of basketballs when we changed in the supply room for gym. My mother’s hair was permed, but mine was short and straight.
But wait. That’s not true. There is photographic evidence. My hair wasn’t short—not anymore.
My mother’s hair was permed, but mine was long and straight.
This is a surprise to me, the me who looks back, the me who tells this other story, the story of my mother leaving. Because in the story I had always told about my mother leaving—in that story, my mother had given up on my hair when I was in first grade and cut it off in an unflattering boyish cut. She gave up on my hair because when she brushed it, it was always full of snarls, and even when she sprayed it with No More Tangles, I complained that she was pulling too hard. In the story I always told about my hair and my mother leaving, this was the booby prize: I could grow my hair long again. I could run across my grassy yard, my hair flowing behind me, free, just like I had always wanted.
So my hair was already long; and my mother had already begun to leave. She was gone two weeks canoeing in the wilderness with all...