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A Family Tree: Generations Of Mothers

I HAVE a photograph: There are three women in it. One holds an infant. She is the baby's grandmother. The other women - the baby's mother and his great-grandmother - are turned toward the baby, focusing on him. In the background, there is a tree; it adds depth to the photograph, and its trunk forks into three heavy branches that set off the women in the foreground visually and metaphorically.

A family tree.

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It's just a snapshot, a small black and white print - a "Kodak picture" as we said in the era when it was made, around 1944 or 1945. The striking composition was the result of a perfect moment when the light and four people and nature arranged themselves and held still long enough for somebody to click the shutter.

If I were a painter, I would take this snapshot as my subject.

I could not improve on the image. But, I believe that the process of painting could carry me deeper into the image, closer to the women. It takes time to paint a picture, after all, time to solve the technical problems of light and shadow and composition and color. In the creation of the image of the women and the baby beneath the tree, I might expand that moment frozen by the camera into a long, private season spent in their company.

I already know a lot about the women - one is my sister, the others were my mother and my grandmother. I don't know what they were thinking that afternoon. I look at the picture and wonder. Everyone in the picture is new. There's the new baby - my nephew, now a middle-aged man - and there is his mother. She is more than 70 years old today, but on that afternoon she was a new mother, and her mother was a new grandmother, and her mother's mother was a great-grandmother for the first time.


The women seem ageless, their essence a part of an ancient pattern that, on that afternoon, must have seemed utterly changeless to them. Their lives were woven from a common system of experience and a common set of expectations. They expected to do the right thing and to have good come of it. They expected to take care of one another. They expected to dwell in safety. They expected to trade places with one another at appropriate times, to move up the ladder a notch as the generations continued on. They e xpected the young mother to become a grandmother and the grandmother to replace her mother as a great-grandmother of a new flock of children one day.

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Their expectations tied all of life into a single, sensible package - tied past to future. In the snapshot, the women focus on the present and the future, and they focus on the baby, as he is and as he will be.

As he will be....

Babies are where we see the future. They are the reason we look at the future, and it is on their behalf that we are determined to hold hope for the future.

That's why I think it's more difficult to be a mother today than it was on that summer afternoon 50 years ago.

Not that it was ever easy - Cain and Abel were obviously a handful - and mothers have always had to cope with war and famine and plague and poverty. It's not an easy job. It's always scary when they hand you a baby and say, "Here he is, he's yours. Take good care of this baby."

But, I think it's scarier to be a mother now. There's less to be certain about than there was when the picture was taken. For generations, most people saw the future as being pretty much like the Great Plains - it was just out there, rolling on and on, little changed from one generation to the next. That's how it must have been for the women in the picture that summer afternoon.

Their ozone layer was intact. Their polar regions were frozen solid. Their beaches were paradise - there weren't even condos on them. There were plenty of wild animals. Bears, eagles, fireflies. It's true that on the day of the snapshot, the world was waging a terrible war. But, there were no bombs in America that day, and the uncertainties of the future were shared uncertainties. The women had one another, and an abiding sense that everything would come out all right. It had to - the future depended on it.

Those who tend to the future have to be brave, and they have to be believers that everything will come out right. Never more so than now. The good mothers must be the bravest of all. They, like legends and lionesses, must stand between their young and harm.

The good mothers - and the grandmothers and great-grandmothers - keep back the darkness. That is their real work. Maybe that is what was in the heads of the women in the old photograph, maybe they had already begun to make a clearing in the jungle for this baby, and that is what the camera caught so perfectly and saved.

Generations. A family tree. We can see the solid trunk of the tree in the old photograph, and we can see the heavy branches that diverge into new directions above the women and the baby. We cannot see - we never see - the roots, but we know when they are there, and we know when they are deep.

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