Every Picture Tells a Story

Mother and Child, James Litaker

Back in 2010 I had the pleasure of participating in an art exhibition premised on the Greek notion of ekphrasis,which is essentially a written representation of a piece of art, a response of sorts. Stare at a picture long enough and a story may well take shape. If not a story, then a poem maybe. Representational or abstract, a piece of art can strike an emotional chord. Memories are jarred. Images become words, which in turn become images all their own.

No Moment Will Ever Be like This One

after James Litaker

Ouch! says the girl, to herself. If she complains, her mother will only pull harder, hurting her more. It’s the nature of the comb, her mother will say. Something to be endured. Just for once she wishes her mother would let her go to school with her hair loose. A classroom is no place for unruly hair, her mother will say.

Already nine and hungering to be nineteen, says the mother, to herself. She runs her fingers through strands of her daughter’s hair, a soft tangle that reminds her of nothing so much as the swift passage of time. The more impatient her daughter seems, the more the mother is inclined to slow down, teach her a lesson about beauty, the kind that comes with precision, the rhythmic comb and weave, comb and weave of a perfect braid. Now she stops, just to savor the moment. To the girl this feels like punishment, maybe even torture, a braid that gets longer with each twist. To the mother it is a kind of release, a morning ritual that gets her through the day, each and every one the same, with its hopes for her daughter, maybe a teacher or a secretary or a beautician; anything but standing behind the counter of a delicatessen, dishing out macaroni salad or ladling soup into a container, slapping slices of turkey or ham onto bread slathered with mayonnaise or mustard, sometimes both. She feels like a surgeon, cutting through the bread. There is nothing so unnatural as making sandwiches through a filter of latex.

She picks up the pace again, comb and weave, comb and weave. Pictures her daughter at nineteen, braids gone, hair cascading to her shoulders.

12 thoughts on “Every Picture Tells a Story

  1. Oh my, such beautiful imagery! I too, love the ritual task of coming out my daughter’s hair each morning even with the squeals and complaints! A lovely and moving post–thanks for sharing!

  2. My daughter has long, easily-tangled hair. Our routine is much like you’ve described. I will not be able to take this morning ritual for granted now that I have the beauty of your words as my companion. And I may even move the comb a bit more reverently in response to them…

  3. First of all, Deborah, you’ve got me with the Leonard Cohen quote. I love his work. And secondly, yes, indeed I do believe that if you stare at a picture long enough a story will take shape.Yours is so evocative.

  4. Me too. The first attraction was the Cohen quote; and then I read your writing, and felt like I was there, braiding a child’s hair. In September, I went to a writing retreat in Santa Fe with Natalie Goldberg. We went to a museum one day, and stood in front of paintings, followed by writing whatever came to mind. it’s a practice I now eagerly embrace.

  5. Deborah, I’ve really enjoyed learning about and reading your sample of ekphrasis. (I’d heard of it vaguely in the past. Never knew there was a term nor that it’s part of writing programs these days.) Mother-and-daughter love is direct yet always complex.

  6. I don’t think I’d ever seen this painting before but I love it. Your vivid story only adds to it. So glad you shared this!

  7. This both reminds me of my mother brushing my hair and the arguments with my kids, trying to brush theirs! I still insist on ponytails for my 9 yr old, and it drives me crazy seeing my 11 yr old with her hair down.

    “Get your hair out of your face.” I want to yell. But I keep quiet, not wanting to be like my own mother.

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