So Much Depends Upon the Red: Thoughts on My Mother

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

My mother is everywhere. In my father’s fifty years of personal photo archives, for instance, she shows up in the majority of the shots. Sometimes she’s the sole subject. Other times, she’s the single fleck of red in the corner of a frame.

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She wore a lot of red as I was growing up – a striking contrast to her rich black hair that became, over time, a crown of silver braids – and got used to carrying a red something-or-other to add that pop of life in pics dad would be shooting.

TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland152Decades before amateur photographers carried their self-focusing, self-editing, smart instruments in their breast pockets, he was carting a suitcase of lenses and tripods in one hand while wearing a big clunky Mamiya slung around his neck. They traveled the world. He shot it all. Mom was his favorite subject.

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His shots captured both the minuscule and the majestic, and often, when he went for the grand sweep, he asked mom to stand “right over there, Donna,” in her red. Hat. Sweater. Coat. Shoes. Lipstick. Wearing red, she’d be the spot that heated things up with the shade of energy, of regeneration, the place a discerning eye first landed when scanning a photo.SA18 1977 Slz CZ DDR091

TRP6 1994 Noway bigtrp129CNGRS17 2001 NZ104TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland090

Today, I look at these shots – a colonnade, a hillside, a bench, a snowfield – and my head might register that I’m seeing a colonnade, hillside, bench, snowfield. But when I ask my deeper senses what they recall, the answer’s fast. They remember my mother’s red.

SA19 1977 Spain084SA19 1981 IT Slz Mu Vie033

In these thousands of images that chronicle our life, you could be fooled into thinking this mother of mine is a mere accessory. A lovely addition, but peripheral, a parsley-like adornment to the real, main thing. But that’s wrong. Her presence is no simple trimming. Because she doesn’t just complete the composition. She is its lifeblood.

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One of my closest friends buried her mother over the holidays. We two had spoken on the telephone on a Wednesday, and when I’d asked about her mom, my friend had mentioned her mom was a bit under the weather –– nothing radically out of the ordinary, though, she added, exhaling lightly.  My friend had to run. She was taking her car to the garage for some repairs before the projected winter storm slammed through town, and said she’d keep her cell handy, waiting for a text from a sibling for an update on their mom. Just in case.

Within 76 hours from our phone call, my friend’s mother was gone.

She wrote about her mother to me today, the day which happens to be my own mother’s 79th birthday:

“A package that she mailed to us for Christmas is still sitting in a stack in my entryway, waiting for the time that we can Skype a belated Christmas morning gift exchange. How could she be gone if I still haven’t opened that package? If I still have questions for her? If I still see things that will delight her?”

And I shut my laptop to the sound of my heart cracking down the middle.

Germany 1961-62122SA181977 Israel GRE047

To reflect on my mother’s vivid red lifeblood trail, of all that has delighted her, still delights her, delights me about her, of all that we have yet to delight in together, especially when another mother’s trail has run dry on this earth’s crust, is to plug into an industrial strength power source, twist the ribbed metal knob of my emotions all the way to the right, and brace myself. Things start rumbling then shaking – I feel it – and soon they’re shimmying and skidding across the floor.

Engagement, Marriage032

So I’ll save myself from dismantling, and will ratchet down the intensity, rein it in, by closing for today. I promise to write more about my mom and what her motherhood has meant and still means to me, and how her red bleeds into my motherhood still. For now, I leave you with a twist on William Carlos Williams, and some images of my magnificent mom-in-red, a color that runs through me.

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The Red

so much depends

a red

glazed with

beside her

14 thoughts on “So Much Depends Upon the Red: Thoughts on My Mother

  1. Beautifully, thoughtfully written. My mother, too, passed this last February, and this entry brings to mind her sustenance and virtues. Her color, though, was blue — the soft peaceful blue of rippling water across a lake, or the blue of a vibrant clear blue sky. She still ripples through my veins when I need her advice, or think fondly of our times together. Thanks for sharing. Geri

  2. Thank you, Melissa. I am deeply touched…by everything…your words of love, of color, of prose, of depth. You are so blessed to have these portraits of your mother in concreteness AND in your heart…to have the gift to express these WORDS of profoundness…and to have had such a mother who loved and that you love her back! My heart aches for your friend who just lost her mother recently. My mother is 89…We hope to celebrate her 90th birthday this year. My mother’s eyes are hazel and they are such a lovely hue oftentimes when she wears…cobalt blue. Thank you for your tenderness. Renee

    • Sweet Renee––Thank you, friend! Not all mother-daughter relationships are happy and safe ones, of course, and not all mothers (or daughters) are worth eulogizing. (I was a challenging teenager in. . .somewhat atypical ways. At times, I tested every drop of red in my mother’s veins.) But we’ve grown together. I owe her my life. Happy 90th this year to your own mother!

  3. I loved reading the tribute to your mother and yes, she’s pretty easy to pick out in those pictures! Your comment is spot on about not all mother-daughter relationships are happy ones. I don’t know that either my sister or I will miss either of our parents much. My Dad is just indifferent and my Mom is so very self-centered. Thankfully she doesn’t live close to me and I only have to deal with a 15 minute call a day. My sister has to deal with her living close by and it’s hard on her.

    Sorry, I didn’t want to take away from the beauty of this post. I truly did enjoy it (I’ve also been enjoying the ones on the International School, even though I haven’t been leaving many comments).


    • Nancy, I am part of some imperfect (from bruising to excruciating) relationships, and can imagine what it must be like to feel estranged from one’s flesh and blood, especially one’s parent. My respect and sorrow go out to all who don’t feel safe or cradled in the refuge of family. I’m glad you come here, Nancy. 🙂

  4. I’m another daughter with a pained relationship with my mother! Her color was blue and she thought I had blue eyes but mine were green. So of course I loved green. She was an artist and has left a beautiful home when she passed that I am able to rent to vacationers, giving me an income I wouldn’t have had. My husband died a year and a half ago and left me with nothing and five kids.
    I have a magnet on the ice box that says “Thank you, Mother”. I try to just remember everything beautiful she left me and let the pain blow away life chaff.
    I’m enthralled with your dad’s photographs. What a beautiful thing he left you. And how beautiful your mother does pop in every scene.
    Jut did my toes red for the holidays and have felt uncomfortable all month. It does take a raven haired beauty sometimes to wear it!
    Don’t want this to sound self pitying at all. I have a wonderful 90 year old father supporting me. He still golfs 3 times a week and works for the state. All of me kids are adults except the 13 year old.
    And I’m trying to be the mother that will be beautiful and missed.
    Again stunning pictures.

    • Big cheer for that fridge magnet in spite of everything! And for red toe nails. (I try them once in a while too, but find they make me trip. 🙂 I’ll tell my dad how you appreciate his photographs. We groused loudly my whole upbringing long every time he hauled out that Mamiya. Now we’re hoarding the files and Dad’s lifting one eyebrow. He was right all along.

  5. Melissa: I loved your thoughts about your beautiful, loving, and talented mother! It sure runs in your family! I just read a wonderful, warm, and loving book: “The Little Red Buckets” by Lynda M. Nelson, and thought of you often. It is a short book really pertinent to mothers who have lost a son (in this case, close to the same age as Parker), and, for others who have lost a loved one. It encourages hope and faith, and brings peace and comfort to the grieving. It brings an added dimension and perspective on life after death. –Your son is not the first one I have heard of that passed away to the other side when preparing to go on a mission. No coincidence. I wonder what kind of mansion your grandmother, Jessie, lives in now. I always thought her home here in Springville was the most beautiful mansion I’d ever seen! That, along with her beautiful rose garden, was heaven on earth! Elegance all the way! Another thing which I find unique to you and Jessie is that you both have such an aura about you! When being near Jessie, I always felt such a sense of reverence. It was like she was on a higher plane, and I surely felt in awe of her and all of her great accomplishments and beautiful and wondrous life she lived! I feel the same about you! Whenever I see, hear, or read about you, or what you have so masterfully written, I feel again on a higher plane. It’s like all I want to do is stand back in awe, and gaze at you, and be inspired by your great intelligence, insights, wisdom, love, and inspiring life! You truly make a world of difference to us who have come under your influence, teachings, and good example! I love that you are so very, very humble, friendly, down-to-earth, and nice-as-can-be! –And, you are totally entertaining, fun, and interesting! Thanks ever so much for all your diligence and hard work and time put in writing your wonderfully great and fascinating books and blogs!!!
    Admiringly, your forever fan, love, Gena Bird
    P.S. Just out of curiosity, one day in Relief Society I decided to count all the women who came in wearing red and black. Almost half! It was winter and most were Winter Season according to color swatches, etc. Your mother probably pushed so many peoples right buttons with her great combination of red and black! I recall Minerva Teichert, the painter, always wore a red headband as her signature!

  6. Hahaha! Minerva’s red hair band! Yes! I once learned that many of her large canvases she rolled out on the floor of her farm home to paint, and never saw the full perspective until she’d finished, the paint had dried, and she could hang them elsewhere. She had to keep the complete perspective and proportions in mind while painting smaller, limited, mundane sections. Folklore, maybe, but I love the metaphor in that process.

    And I like her works. Four of her paintings hang in our homes everywhere we go.

    I am indebted to my many mothers, those like my mom and grandmothers to whom I am biologically bound, those to whom I am spiritually sealed, those, even, with whom I’ve had no face-to-face connection, but who through the generations and throughout the world have swung open doors and paved paths and held wide the windows of understanding for me.

    Thank you for being here, Gena.–M.

    • You are so, so friendly, kind-as-can-be, articulate, expressive, a deep thinker, have such insights, are so very, very sensitive, intelligent, and always amaze me, and cause me to stretch and grow!!! Elaine Cannon wrote a biography about her called “Minerva!–An Artist With a Mission”. She describes what you are talking about, and I loved the fact that she prayed before painting–especially before painting the murals in the Manti Temple, for which she had to climb a scaffolding over and over again to complete. She reminds me of your mother, and her mother, who had to work so hard in farm-like environments (which I, like you, believe builds so much humility and character, and makes people strong like no other way!) Minerva painted in between chores a lot! I’m glad she finally is getting the recognition she deserves! The other day at Deseret Book I noticed her beautiful picture of ‘Christ in Red’, and thought of you immediately! How wondrous to have her pictures in your very own home!!! That just fits!–beautiful, elegant, cultured, refined homes, with paintings to match!!!! Kudos! Admiringly, Love, Gena

  7. What a delightful post Melissa. This brought back such fond memories of my own mom who is gone over ten years now. I reflect with laughter and longing every day those things I recall that delighted mom in her days. And somewhere along the way we grew up and set out on our own and I truly wish we had spent more time together, though the many miles came between us geographically, to delight in those things together.

  8. I LOVE this adaptation of the wheelbarrow. I will never read that poem the same. Nor will I look at your mother the same. I will see her in red. As life-blood. The way all mothers ought to be. So grateful I could meet her. Such a tender piece Melissa.

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