She is a girl of about nine. She has luxuriant hair, cut to shorter than shoulder length. She wears a lovely long dress with an attractive floral print. She in fact looks pretty, almost festive. But she wears a decidedly melancholy look. It is a picture I can’t get out of my mind. Why does a little girl look so sad?
But, when the play ended and her mother came to collect her, she was accompanied by the man she had seen many times with her mother before. He always came when her father was not there. He was an engineer and he brought gifts for her mother. She knew he was the cause of innumerable fights between her parents. She also knew that her mother was greatly enamored of him and had no intention of abandoning him. She did not dislike him, but she knew well her parents’ relationship would remain highly toxic as long the man would be on the scene.
The man said to her, “You did a good job in that play. Let me take a photo.”
Her mother made a sign of approval and the man directed her to pose like a vendor and pretend she had a basket on her head. She did not want to do it. She did not want to please the man. But she knew her mother would be annoyed if she did not comply. She complied. The photo was the result. She posed but she wasn’t happy.
“That is clear from the photo,” I said. What happened to the man, I wanted to know.
“He had advanced colon cancer,” she replied, “my mother visited him every day. She told me she prayed morning and evening for his recovery. The prayer wasn’t answered. He died very young, in his early forties.”
“And your mother?”
“She didn’t last long either. She had an unusual heart condition. She passed away five years later.”
She paused and added, “My parents never reconciled. They lived under the same roof, but they barely talked. The air in my home was fraught with hostility. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t breathe. The last few days of her life, mother didn’t even want to see father. I sat alone next to her bed and gave her the medicines.”
She resumed, “Father loved me. But what had happened, not just a day or two but for years, had poisoned our family life. Father was not at home very much. He seemed to avoid our home.
“When I married and moved out, he lived alone in the large house. Like a ghost, encircled by the rank residue of bitter memories. I found it difficult to connect with him. Slowly but surely, I gave up the effort. He stopped existing in my life long before he met his end in a lonely hospital room.
“I truly missed him. I missed his attachment to me, his deep affection. I missed even more the far closer connection I had with my mother, who was my friend, almost my model. But she was also the person who had betrayed me. She was too intent on seeking her own satisfaction, no matter what the consequence was for her family or her child. She wanted her affair and whatever it meant for her unfulfilled life. I loved her and yet I could not but hate her too.”
I looked at the photograph in my hand and I looked at her. Something of the melancholy showed on her face when she went quiet, absorbed in her thoughts.
We are constantly told that our destiny is in our hands, we can make of our lives whatever we want. What does a little girl do when she is trapped in a toxic family, where she needs love and certainty and contends with tension and hostility? How does she cope with two caring parents who are caught up in an unending spiral mutual neglect and suspicion? With her scant resources, she must struggle painfully just to survive. to hope one day to breathe the air of trust and confidence that should be every child’s right.
I hold now in my hand a faded copy of the photo of a little girl in a dance pose, with a festive dress and melancholy face, and a sketchy notion of what transpired in her later life, and say a silent prayer that my two little girls – and their little girls and all little girls – have a brighter look on their face and go forward in life with a little more of joy and assurance.