Five of us are seated around a table at the Cheesecake Factory, facing the camera. My husband and I on the left, and across from us are my mother and my two cousins, who have driven up from New York for the day to visit—and, unspoken, to pay respects to their aunt before she fades away. Outside of the frame is the photographer: my nephew, who is our waiter tonight.
There are empty glasses on the table and two small teapots; we’ve finished our meal. We all smile brightly as people do for the camera, but my mother’s smile is wan, almost straight. My cousins sit beside her, two of the remnants of her family, the daughters of her brother and her sister. There were six of them at one time, three sisters and three brothers, children of the Depression and two world wars, of the automobile and the airplane. Five of them are gone now; she is the survivor, my mother, the strongest of the group. But she doesn’t know that she is. In her mind they all still survive, as does her mother, my grandmother, who died fifty years ago. Time is just a confusion to her now.
Despite the passivity of her smile, my mother looks content. But here is what the picture doesn’t show: the shattering of her life four years ago. The memory no longer lives in her but lingers around the periphery of her mind, shadowing it so that she has to ask me, every so often, “Where is David?” She is not, at least, doomed to remember our vigil at the hospital while my brother was dying. I am doomed to remember it. His wife and children are doomed to remember it. But my mother’s doom is more subtle and terrible: the shutting down of all memory.
In a minute my nephew will sit down next to her. David, named after his now-gone father. He looks handsome in his white shirt and tie, the waiter’s look. He has a large smile and bright eyes, and he loves his grandmother, as she does him. Another question not answered here: how will he handle her loss, after that of his father? No photograph can show loss, but it lies behind all our faces, our eyes. My cousin, who lost her father, brother, and mother within three years, whose son has cerebral palsy and whose husband has multiple sclerosis. My husband, who lost his mother a few years ago and whose father has endured two amputations.
But this day has been good for us. When time and death fragment a family, we have to put the remaining pieces of love together however we can. Time spent together, crystallized in a photograph. As a family we’ve been lucky enough to love, respect, and even like each other, and in the end that’s really what this picture will show us: what is solid and material and what is invisible yet as real as a table, a teapot, or a smile.