I keep a photograph of my family, circa 1972, on my fireplace mantle. Taken when I was 11 by a professional photographer in a studio at a mini-mall in Wilmington, Del., it's the kind of stilted portrait many families sat for before we all started snapping candid selfies at family gatherings.
The similarities and shape of our features coupled with our pale skin speak to our Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. That we look well fed and well groomed but not tanned nor meticulously styled lets you know that we weren't summering in Gstaad. We children wear our hair laying flat against our heads like so many Marcias, Jans and Cindys in the early 1970s. We are attired in mix-matched cotton and wool frocks — the Von Trapp family we're not. My grandmother's modest gold brooch and my mother's choice of a nautically themed jacket with its three-quarter-length sleeve, popularized by Jackie O., sends a signal that we are trying to be classy and move up a bit in the world.
We have smiles culled by the professional photographer, except for me. I refused to smile. My dramatic expression of long suffering would suggest that I am being marched on a pogrom. I also am affecting a more formal pose than the others, one befitting a royal family, sitting for a portrait that will hang in a state hall. There's always one person in every family whose body language suggests they believe there's been a terrible mistake: "What am I doing with these people?" That was me.
As long as I can remember, I've thought that this image perfectly captured how even at an early age I was always plotting an exit strategy. So much so that it's the cover of my book about my family and the families I've joined by accident or on purpose. Now, I'm questioning that premise.
There is someone in the shot who wasn't there when the picture was taken — my cousin Monique. Monique isn't the name of any of my cousins. Monique isn't a person at all. She's the name my two real cousins and I have christened the woman pictured with us, their sister who is not their sister but a simulacrum, standing in for her. Monique, name withheld by request, did not want her image to appear on my book cover.
My sister and I were born in Mobile, Ala., our two cousins in Wilmington, Del., but Monique's birthplace was the Penguin/Random House book cover art department on Hudson Street in Manhattan.
Is hers a face that actually exists, lifted from some cache of stock footage? I searched for her in files of licensed images under "white women" and discovered available females cataloged with exhaustive detail. "Depressed young woman by a lake in a park, with sadness, feeling loss" and "sad woman looking through car window with rain drops." How much call is there for that kind of thing? Perhaps these images are used in pharmaceutical brochures to advertise one of the varieties of anti-depressants I have experimented with over the years. I couldn't locate my new cousin anywhere in the vastness of cyberspace. More likely, her features are compiled from numerous sources. A nose plucked from here, mouth from elsewhere, lips cut and pasted from yet another source.
The reason Monique, name withheld by request, didn't want to be pictured is something I am not privy to. I texted her for permission to use her likeness and when she declined, I didn't ask why. I felt it might be intrusive. I haven't spoken or seen her in over two decades.
Years ago I'd heard that the six months during which my family crashed at Monique's home after the failure of one of my father's many get-rich quick schemes was rough on her. We'd shown up on a frigid January morning without even enough money for winter coats. My mother fell into a deep depression and didn't get out bed for months and Monique's parents, my aunt and uncle, folded us into their family while my grandmother slipped them money to pay for our keep. Maybe she didn't get enough attention at a crucial moment in her emotional development? In my memory, Monique was an average if moody teenager given to holing up in her bedroom to strum an acoustic guitar. She played a lot of Neil Young, which might be a bad sign. I was only 6 at the time, so no doubt there is more to the story.
Despite our estrangement, I'd been surprised by her answer. Why would anyone care about a picture that was taken so long ago being on a book cover? What kind of person can't let go of the past like that? Me. I'm still trying to make sense of how that time in my life carved deep grooves into my brain that set me onto a lifelong search for my people. People more reliable than my family. Was Monique, name withheld by request, plotting her escape as well?
In any case, I'm not writing her version of a story, I am writing mine. History is written by the victors but memoirs are written by those drawn to reconstructing memories of complicated pasts that they hope to craft into meaningful presents.
Often these people are those who've lost something and through the act of writing hope to gain it back and in the process help their readers do the same. Some are written by those who've found something they believe is essential to living and want to share this hard-won wisdom in a book or a tele-seminar that you will be compelled to attend after reading of their journey to better living through, for instance, tripping on Ayahuasca or the magic of cleaning out your closets. They are also written by people whose lives are so extraordinary that their stories simply must be shared. She chewed off her own hand to escape from her captor! He reveals the Real Truth about life with Charles Manson or O.J. or some tangential connection to that which transfixes us and demands our attention. I'm just a comedienne who ponders insignificant slights and the miracle that any of us survive childhood, even though, in the larger scheme of things, our woes are minor hiccups in the ever-expanding universe.
The Polish author Czeslaw Milosz is quoted as having said, "When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished." This might be a chicken-and-egg question. Perhaps the family of anyone who becomes a writer was finished already? For better or for worse, I'm the storyteller and my cousin is not.
I don't know if it was intended or a byproduct of the collage process that assembled her features, but there is something mysterious in Monique's gaze. A Mona Lisa effect. I considered having her removed from the photo entirely, but I'm glad my cousin is gracing us with the presence of her absence or the absence of her presence, to quote Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher, known for his semiotic deconstructionist theories. I'm not sure if I actually understand what Derrida had in mind. In fact, I can't remember if I even studied Derrida in my English lit college class that touched on semiotics or just picked up a vague notion about his theories while snorting cocaine off the chest of my adjunct professor who I was sleeping with and from whom I earned all of a B or B minus for my efforts. Memory can be a trickster.
I hope Monique has joined a tribe she's happy to be pictured with, because though I don't know her at all, and probably never did, I admire her. I think of writing as a redemptive act, one that allows us to reclaim our narratives, but without putting a word on a page, my cousin Monique, name withheld by request, has made her statement. Is there anything that speaks louder than declining to be pictured with your family in a book on the insanity and importance of family? Maybe the absence of her presence affirms her success at being the one who made a clean break from our family, although she has left us with the presence of her absence? I'm not sure. Perhaps she knows, but like Mona Lisa's smile, my cousin Monique, name withheld by request, remains a mystery.