Lisa never liked that picture of herself. She looked so happy in it, with a big semi-toothless smile and her long light brown hair with bangs. There was the dress. The burgundy and cream prairie-style long dress that was so popular in the early 1970s was the prettiest thing she’d ever seen. With a paisley pattern, ruffled puffy sleeves, and a bow in the back, it was stunning, at least to a child. It wasn’t to be hers for long.
Picked up by her mother Carol Ann at her grandmother’s, Lisa wondered what the day would hold. It wasn’t her birthday, though she was just five she knew that. It wasn’t Christmas because it was summertime, and she had mosquito bites to prove it. What was this visit all about? Was she finally going to see where her mom lived? Grandma dressed her in hand-me-down pants, a top she’d sewed, and the only pair of shoes she had and begrudgingly handed her off to her mother.
They drove what seemed like an eternity in the massive gray Chevrolet Impala to a shopping center in a neighboring city. Lisa was tiny and could not see out the windshield, so her aspect was different, it was the clouds she saw and the telephone poles, they seemed to follow her, and she would move her arm up and down as if it was surfing along with the lines that stretched for miles. Dotting the lines were occasional steel boxes that Lisa assumed were where old-fashioned telephones were tucked away, like the one she’d seen Oliver Douglas use on “Green Acres” repeats.
They arrived at a mall and headed to the girl’s department at Sears. After a brief look at the dresses available, Carol Ann urged her to pick one because she was getting her picture taken today. Lisa was fascinated by this, not knowing what that meant exactly, all she knew was that she was getting a new dress! Something new was hard to come by for Lisa. In her household there were other children, but their hand-me-downs were few and far between because they were older, and their smaller clothes were discarded long before she came into existence. There were several pieces of attire left to be had and with supplemental purchases at Goodwill, coupled with the basic seamstress skills of her grandmother, she was always dressed in clean clothes, even if they weren’t fashionable. But she was five, not yet in school and her social circle consisted of the family dogs and the girl her age who lived up the street. Her love of the outdoors and mischief, in general, meant that most of her clothes soon found themselves with grass-stained knees, muddied or worse.
Dress in hand and paid for, and they retreated to a dressing room to swap out what she was currently wearing for the new dress. At her mother’s request, the price tag remained intact despite Lisa’s pleas to remove it for being “pokey”.
Leaving Sears, they entered the mall and soon were at a photographer who had set up shop in the middle. Lisa was so excited! The photographer produced a little black comb and Carol Ann combed the knots out of Lisa’s thin hair, and there were plenty and still are to this day. But having done that and wearing her new dress, Lisa looked pretty and happy. Climbing up on the platform with its sky-blue shaggy carpet and a background meant to mimic clouds, Lisa grinned a grin so wide that a bird could have easily flown in it. The picture was taken, money was exchanged and a promise to have the pictures ready by a certain date sealed the deal. Then Carol Ann lead Lisa back into Sears.
“Why are we going into the bathroom, I don’t need to go,” said Lisa. “We need to put your other clothes on, so I can take you back to Grandma’s” stated Carol Ann, adding “and I want to return that dress anyway, you won’t ever wear it again”. Lisa cried and pleaded, it was the prettiest dress she’d ever seen, and she felt like one of the princesses in the books her grandmother read to her. “P-please! Can I have it? I’ve been good, ask Grandma!” Lisa argued. “No” Carol Ann said.
That was the end of it, the dress was returned to the curious clerk who had sold it to them not one hour ago. Lisa continued to cry and couldn’t understand what she’d done wrong. Was she bad? Is this why she didn’t live with her mother and her stepdad? She’d see them from time to time, but they seemed to move often and there was never a room for her. She didn’t even know where they lived now.
Once home with her grandmother, she said very little of the day, stated she was hungry, and was fed a cheese sandwich in due course. Carol Ann didn’t stay for dinner.
Carol Ann was pleased with herself. She knew the picture of her daughter would look lovely on her desk. She was, in her mind at least, a doting mother who dashed out of work at the end of the day to spend time with her beloved Lisa. Lisa was born out of wedlock in 1967 and never knew her father, nor did she ask about him. She accepted her family unit was her mother (at times) and her grandparents with whom she lived. In recent years, her family unit extended to a stepfather who seemed kind, but she’d only seen him a few times. Lisa vaguely remembered what must have been their wedding day and another occasion that was a birthday party for her when she turned five last year (she would be six in a couple of months). While she remembered the party and meeting much of her stepfather’s family, most of whom declared her “adorable”, she never really knew where the presents went. There were dolls, a tiny purse with pretend make-up, and a plastic palomino horse. Lisa remembered the horse most of all, like many girls, she was “horse crazy”, but she had no idea where it went and didn’t even know it was a palomino horse until years later when she looked up types of horses in the school library. No dolls, no make-up, no horse. She often thought they were waiting for her at her mother’s apartment, and she could have them if she was good, but since they were gone and now the dress too, maybe she would never be good.
Two weeks later the photographs of Lisa were ready, and Carol Ann picked them up at the mall. She was pleased with them. Lisa looked cute, happy, and a bit waif-like. It was exactly what she had hoped for!
The following Monday Carol Ann placed the now framed photo on her desk for all to admire. “Yes, she’s getting so big!” “She does look like me”. “We’d love to put her in ballet, she has a gift, but there’s no money for it”.
“She might not go to school this fall; I don’t have the money for her vaccines or all those supplies they always make you buy”. “Well, her real dad has never helped, and I won’t ask Dan to help pay for her, he has his own troubles”.
This was setting the stage for a series of performances that starred “Lisa! Girl in the Picture: Now Playing on a Desk Near You!”. Another weekend involved a pick-up at Grandma’s and a trip to the local grocery where an uncle worked. Carol Ann paraded Lisa around the store in circles until they “bumped” into the uncle. While Lisa never fully knew what Carol Ann said to the uncle, she did know that they left with several bags of food that he paid for. Later, when returned to her grandmother’s keeping, the groceries remained with Carol Ann.
Lisa was Carol Ann’s cover, her means to an end. A way to ask for money and favors and to garner sympathy for her plight. It wasn’t as if Carol Ann couldn’t support herself, but she was wasteful and
selfish. Lisa came a distant second to anything else Carol Ann craved. Lisa didn’t understand this yet, and was, in her young estimation, a burden and not a good girl.
As time passed and school commenced (Lisa did start school that fall), there was the rite of passage known as school picture day. Dutifully, grandma ordered the least expensive package they offered, and Lisa was always enamored of the free comb the photographer gave her and all the children. It also reminded her of that day at the mall. As an adult, she would think about those combs and laugh-what a mess we must have all been and took pity upon the photographers who always did their best to make us look presentable so they could sell more photos to adoring parents.
It was when Lisa was older and deemed by her grandmother “old enough” to ride a public bus by herself, that she ventured to find the office downtown where her mother worked. She knew basically how to find it and relied on directions from strangers to get her the rest of the way.
Arriving, she was in awe of the building. It was huge and seemed to be a huge silver box with more windows than she cared to count. Entering the building, she told the man at the desk the name of the company her mother worked at and headed upstairs on an elevator “just to say hello” to Carol Ann. It’s all she really wanted, so say hello and see where her mother worked. Well, perhaps it was more complicated than that on a level she didn’t fully acknowledge.
Carol Ann was not there when she arrived, she was out to lunch, but Lisa “was welcome to stay and wait in reception for her”. And she did, for a while. It was while searching for a restroom that Lisa kept being approached by women that she didn’t know who would comment to her, “you look just like your picture”, “how is ballet?”, “we’re sorry you missed the company picnic because you were sick”. Lisa was confused but politely nodded as the increasingly confusing comments came at her one after another from person after person who seemed to know her, but did not know her at all.
Lisa then found, quite by accident, her mother’s desk. On it was every school picture ever taken of her, grades 1-7, plus the picture from the mall. There it was, that beautiful dress she had so longed for which was taken away from her. She had always thought she didn’t deserve that dress because she was bad, but now she began to understand what these photos, all of them, represented.
5-year-old Lisa looked so happy in that picture and Lisa almost pitied her, but the thirteen-year-old version of herself, standing here at this moment understood everything now. She left before Carol Ann returned from lunch.
Years later, she was clearing out Carol Ann’s home after she died. Her stepfather was long gone, her grandparents too. In a dusty box, she found her school pictures that had been on her mother’s desk. Some frames had been replaced with new photos of trips and pets, but there it was, still housed in its long-tarnished frame, the photo taken that day at the mall.
Lisa never liked that picture of herself.
Mary Casey-Sturk is a writer in northern Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Living Magazines, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincy Magazine, Smoky Mountain Living Magazine and more