Monday, February 07, 2011


She never knew her mother's family and had few memories of her father, none of them distinct. When she was four years old he had walked out of their rented clapboard house one morning carrying a suitcase. If there had been a fight or other preamble she must have slept through it, but in any case he never came back, and since as far as she knew her mother never inquired after his whereabouts she assumed that his departure had been at her invitation. Somehow her mother made ends meet until Adele was old enough to go to school and she could return to work and begin to bring in a little money. They moved with regularity, almost every year, usually in the summer, until her mother remarried. She didn't particularly care for her stepfather -- he was aloof and heavy-set and smelled like hair tonic -- but no longer having to be the one girl in her school without a father came as a relief. She suspected it was mostly her mother's fault when he too decamped, but Adele never forgave him anyway. When he appeared at the house, now and then, to visit her much younger half-brother, she usually managed to be out.

When she was sixteen she left home after a row with her mother. It wasn't really such a big deal -- they'd had worse -- but she was fed up with school and just didn't feel like going back. It was the sixties and it was what the people she hung out with were doing. She didn't exactly "run away." Her mother knew where she was living and Adele went home once a week or so when she wanted some of her things, but after she started traveling and later wound up on the West Coast eventually she just stopped coming home. She hated writing letters but kept in touch, at least sporadically. The years went quicker than she thought. She worked in a fish hatchery and a bar and a doctor's office and even in a factory once for a couple of weeks, then she got a GED and bought a camera and started taking photographs for a local weekly. She got to be good enough at it that after a year or so someone gave her a lead to some magazine work, and after that she was on the road a good part of the time. She sent her mother postcards. There were men in her life and they were decent guys for the most part but she somehow never wanted to settle and one by one they moved on or just stayed friends.

Her little brother, so unlike her in this regard, thrived in high school; when he was accepted to Stanford he came out to see her. They were all but strangers at first but he was a good kid and they wound up hitting it off. For a couple of years he spent part of the summers with her -- that is, in her house, as she herself was often elsewhere -- but when he graduated he went back east. When she returned for her first visit in twenty years she found her mother remarried again, older than she imagined, and not well. After that she made a point of coming back as often as she could get away, but when her mother entered her final illness she was in Mexico and didn't get word until it was too late.

Her mother's widower was a gaunt, quiet older man who treated her without reproach. She felt guilt-ridden and terrible but his kindness and her brother's affection and surprising level-headedness -- where had he gotten it from?, she wondered -- carried her through the week after the funeral. Her mother had left her a little money in her will. It wasn't much and she certainly hadn't been expecting anything, but the last maternal gesture touched her more than she expected. As a keepsake her stepfather offered her a photo album she barely remembered from her childhood. Except for a few pictures of a smiling Adele riding a hobby horse or building sandcastles all of the photographs were from the years before her mother first married; the few blank spots, Adele surmised, were the ghostly traces that were all that remained of her own father. The little album with its pale blue faux leather cover held a few score images, all of them black and white. There were a few images of typical if unidentifiable scenic New England vistas, but the rest were of Adele's mother, groups of smiling young women who must have been her friends, and a few shots of a stout older woman in white gloves, stiffly posing next to a man in a summer suit and boater. None of the snapshots had captions and Adele never could find out who any of them were.

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