My friend Justyna wrote, “It just occurred to me: would you trust me enough to show me a picture of your mom? I’ve heard and read so much about her that now I just wonder what she looked like during the war and before and after. It just came to me (the desire to see her) strongly today.” She’s right, of course. I write this blog with a picture of my mom in my head so it makes sense to post some photos of her.
I only have one photo of Mama from Poland. It’s a tiny headshot, perhaps for some form of identification? I would guess she’s somewhere around 20, so it was taken sometime during World War II. I found it among the papers my brother kept when he cleaned out the house in preparation for the renovation. I submitted this photo, along with my mom’s verification papers confirming her service in the Polish Underground, to the Warsaw Rising Museum. It’s posted in their virtual archive of partisan’s biographies:
Though washed out and unfocused, the photo shows my mom’s remarkable eyes—deep set and sad—and her thick, wavy hair. As a kid, I loved the way her soft curls felt, and wished my thin stringy hair was more like hers. Luckily, as an adult, my hair became wavy, though never as soft. What strikes me about this photo today is how much my brother Wiley resembled her when he was around the same age.
This next photo is one of several taken in the 1950s on the roof of Whittier Hall, the dorm my mother lived in when she was a graduate student at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. My mom showed me these when I was child. She was very proud of her figure, and liked these photos because they were taken from far enough away that her scars didn’t show. These are the kinds of things my mom told me.
Mom says she arrived in the US with a bandage on her nose. I don’t know if she had 22 surgeries like my brother remembers, but there were many of them, first to reconstruct damage sustained in the war, and then to fix up botched surgeries. Surgeons took skin grafts from her forehead so the skin on her new nose would match her face. This is why she always kept her bangs long and blunt down to her eyebrows—to cover the scars left on her forehead. Even after the surgeries stopped, she continued to wear a bandage because she was afraid of what people would think of her scars. She proudly explained how artfully she crafted a small bandage that just covered the bridge of her nose. My dad never saw her without it before they married. When she finally dared show her face without the bandage, Dad told her he was relieved; he thought her scars would be far worse. You would think it would be a powerful message to my mom that maybe she didn’t need to be so self-conscious, that maybe her scars weren’t as bad as she pictured them in her own mind. Even years later, she seemed to wonder at the fact Dad married her with a bandage on her nose. I think it’s a tribute to his character.
But it’s also a tribute to something that was very special about her. While at Whittier Hall, she never lacked for dates. Her friends were even jealous that she, a woman with a bandage on her nose (this is my mom speaking), would get more attention than they did from handsome men. One was Hale, Dad’s roommate whom she only dated once. She said he looked “like a Greek god,” but there was no chemistry between them. Dad, by contrast, was also good looking but in a more normal way, and very shy. When he started coming by Whittier Hall, Mom’s dorm-mates were envious that she was going on dates with a man who drove a jaguar.
Mom and Dad had a volatile relationship. Neither was very happy and they fought a lot. In this photo from the summer of 1964, Mama is pregnant with Chris. She is holding me, with Ron beside us and Wilan by Dad. I was about one year old, Wy was two and a half, and Ron was six. After the four kids left the house, my parents rediscovered common interests and actually got along much better. I would like to have posted a photo of them together later in life, but I don’t have a digital copy with me.
Mom struggled with her waves. She would wear a scarf like a headband after washing her hair so that her bangs would dry straight. She put on a beret when she went out to hold her bangs in place against the wind. I became her mirror. It was my job to make sure her bangs were in place at all times. She’s beyond caring now, but I still do it automatically. Her hair is thinner now, brilliant white, but still soft and wavy. I love to stroke it, and I always adjust her bangs.