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“A Willing Sacrifice”

Because I Love Her: Thirty Four Top Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond

ed. Niki Richesen, Mira Press

        The summer my mother died, I sorted through old pictures and letters, in hopes I might find some wisdom she had intended to share with me.  But I really didn’t expect success. Here on the Great Plains, where the vast space and emptiness make us feel exposed and vulnerable, we protect ourselves by drawing inward, as animals will curl up to protect themselves from predators. This instinct inhibits honest conversation, and so we take our secrets to the grave. My mother was no exception.

        I peered at a faded and grainy photo of my mother as a small girl, most likely taken around 1920. In the picture, she sits on a tricycle, her back to the camera. She rests a large framed mirror against the handlebars and studies her reflection. Her dark, bobbed hair curls under at the nape of her neck and hugs her skull like a helmet. The bodice of her dress is smocked and the wide collar is trimmed with rick rack. The skirt drapes over the narrow metal wheels; her chubby, bare feet stick out beneath the hem and rest against the pedals.  Her tiny body and the mirror are the only objects that break the line between the immense sky and the vast central South Dakota grasslands that surround them, except for a cluster of shadowy leaves that cascade down the right side of the frame.

    Until that summer, I had never really noticed that the face reflected in the mirror was strangely mature and vaguely recognizable. Suddenly, I felt a chill. I was looking at my face in the mirror, my pug nose, heavy-lidded eyes, and sweep of thick bangs across a wide forehead. It was as if the camera had captured my mother looking in the mirror at the face of the adult woman I would become while I looked back to the child my mother once was.

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