That fist. Despite the silliness of my mother’s emoji-tongue, the look-how-crazy-I-am face, the candid delight of her expression, her fist is what grabs me. It isn’t the surprise of it, but the familiarity. That hand doesn’t guide the steering wheel, it clutches the thing, begs it to never leave. I can imagine the flesh impressed white from that need to hold on. And all the while, you can see her leaning towards me. I, the photographer, the one who renders still, a life.
This photo will never be posted—mama would kill me—but it remains on the scrolling litany of my phone’s stored memories, this one of the roadtrip we took summer 2017, through Alabama. We are crossing a bridge. She wanted to find places to move, worn and chapped by the Baltimore winters, the gunshots in the early mornings, being reminded of all that had already been lost. She wanted the sun, the simplicity, the South. She wanted the water—a lake, a river, a garden hose, no matter. She loves to stare out at water, viewing changeability from a safe distance. And so, we drove all around the state.
The sun is beginning to peak behind tall things, and the Southern light has cooled to the color of a peeled onion. Lightning bugs will soon beg with their horny blinking, and everything is in that still state between punching the clock and supper, made evenmore still by the weight of summer air in the river delta. If my uncle were waiting for us in a motel room—which he is not—he would be opening his third Coors Light, and thinking about his five estranged children—one in prison for greed, one in prison for fury—hoping my mother return soon to busy him out of his regrets with weather talk and dinner plans.
Before we crossed this bridge, before I cranked up the volume to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” on the only radio station that didn’t blare post-911 Country or Christian Rock, I asked mama if she resented that I had moved away, so far away. Her hands slid up the steering wheel as if she were a pre-teen hugging the neck of her middle school crush at a gymnasium dance. She looked forward into more than the horizon, and muttered, “Uh-uh.” She couldn’t sound out a word at that moment. The syllables would have given her away. I probably pretended not to see her tight lips, maybe even looked out the passenger window just long enough to see the alligators sunbathing on the side of the road, and shot through the silence with a “Look, Mama!” that reminded me of every day of my childhood.
In the motel room the night before with its burnt orange bedspreads, I poured her a glass of the only decent Pinot Noir they had at the Piggly Wiggly (“I swear Mama, they don’t all taste like vinegar”). She asked me after a few sips—and the roses already blooming on her cheeks—why I had enjoyed so much success with love while she always failed. She twisted a tendril of her hair, and it made her seem younger, somehow. I nodded my head back as if I had never thought of this question before (but I had many, many times). With a face as flummoxed as I could manage without her seeing through the bullshit (which she had many, many times), I said, “I learned from you.” Which was almost true. I didn’t say, “I learned what not to trust.” I didn’t say, “I learned how not to hold on too tight.” I didn’t say, “I learned to love myself first, before any other man.” Even though often that man, for her, was me.
I live in San Francisco. Mama lives in Baltimore. If you held a ruler up to these two points on a map, you’d draw the longest straight line across America, yet one that rested precisely on the same latitude.
Before the motel room, before the sky reveals itself, before the crossing of another bridge, I photograph my mother, because I want to know if the pain I see in her living can be glimpsed in that still life. I want to know if anyone else can see it. When you love something so much, you see your own truths mapped over theirs, and the contours don’t often align. A humid horizon. A changeable view. Sometimes, we need distance to see a thing clearly. Sometimes, clarity can be as closed as a fist. I don’t know which truth this photograph demands, but for me, the demand is always beginning.
Miah Jeffra is author of The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic 2017), The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2020). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship for nonfiction, and 2019 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Literary Anthology. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.