My cousin Darlene sent the photo in a text message. Our cousin Jan had e-mailed it to her. I had never seen it before. It’s a black and white shot of two girls on a beach, young women you’d call them today, but girl is who each was back then, in the early 1950s. Beautiful girls, both of them. One salt, one pepper, the blonde in a black bathing suit, the raven-haired one in white.
It’s the raven-haired one I cannot look away from. It’s the raven-haired one I want to make real. I want this girl to jump up and leap out of that photograph and run straight to me. I want to feel her arms around me, gritty with sand, and smell the perfume she always wore and the smoke from the cigarettes she snuck and the salty, ocean air clinging to her. I want to hear her voice and I want to hear her laugh. My Aunt Lorraine was always laughing.
She used to laugh as she ran down the wooden steps of her upstairs flat where she lived with her mother — my grandmother — the second she heard the creaks that my feet made. The instant she knew I was hurrying to her. She used to laugh as we walked home from the playground or from the flower shop — the florist had a crush on Lorraine and would give us both flowers — or from Woolworth’s where we would split a vanilla milkshake, then say hello to Joe, who made keys, who also had a crush on her. She used to laugh as she painted my fingernails red and my lips to match, then lifted me up to the mirror. “See?” she’d say, smiling. “Now you look just like me. We’re twins!”
But we weren’t. Not ever. She was a princess. She was perfection.
Perfection is what I see in this black and white photo. This is the Lorraine I knew when I was a child. This is the Lorraine I adored. This is the Lorraine I see, still, whenever I think of her. And there are few days when I don’t think of her.
She was my mother’s sister, born when my mother was 10. Lorraine was 12 when I was born. Maybe that’s why I never called her Aunt Lorraine. She was always just Lorraine. “Lorraine’s coming to visit,” my mother would say. Not “Aunt Lorraine.” “Lorraine dropped off this book for you.” “Lorraine wants to know if you want mac and cheese or grilled cheese for dinner?” When I was 4 and 5 and 6, I believed Lorraine was my friend. Mine exclusively. That when she came to our house it was only to visit me.
That’s how she made me feel. Exclusive. When I slept over my grandmother’s, she shared her Hershey chocolate bars with me. She cooked my breakfast, but didn’t insist that I eat it. When she got me ready for school, she’d dab her Chanel No. 5 behind my ears. And she ate mac and cheese for countless dinners because of me.
I remember standing on a big field with my parents at her high school graduation. The grass was wet. My patent leather shoes were wet. I couldn’t see anything except the knees of the people around me.
And then I saw her in a white cap and gown running toward me, smiling her big, princess smile, kneeling, then taking off her cap and putting it on my head.
This is the Lorraine I see in the picture. This is my Lorraine, young and beautiful and all mine.
She didn’t photograph well. Not ever. I think this is because something as static as film could not contain the whole of her. I imagine that when she saw this picture, if she saw it, she didn’t like it because she isn’t smiling, because her hair is frizzy and because she’s squinting. I can almost hear her saying this.
We’re tough on ourselves when we look at pictures. When the pictures are new. We see everything that’s wrong with us. It’s only when we look back that we see all that is right.
I see raven hair. Red lips. A princess. I see the Lorraine I remember. My mother’s sister. My first friend.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.