Elizabeth Kerlikowske

Portrait of My Mother in Black and White


When I look at her first studio portrait, my body feels my mother’s little dress, starched and ironed stiff. There will be no wrinkles. Her hair, what there is of it, is neatly combed, highlighting the perfect planet of her head. On her right hand, the tiny ring in my jewelry box. No wonder it never fit me. A bracelet on her fat wrist. Not smiling, not frowning, she stares intently at someone. A faraway look in those eyes. The next year, there is another child. The next year, another.

The lilacs are past blooming. It is nearly summer on Coit Avenue where my mother poses beaming in her cap and gown. High school graduation. Her brother is still in a body cast; her father has lost an arm. At last, they can smile again. Her robe is real fabric, real pleats. Rationing is over, and there are stockings again.  She wears high heels on the lawn. Poodie, their spaniel, chases a ball behind her. Despite his cast, Peter can throw a ball and take this photo.

My mother and father meet at college. She is earning her degree in elementary education; he plays cards for money.  They cuddle on the couch at his folks’. Bakelite phone by her; radio by him. One of his big feet rests on a newspaper.  Above them hang two horrible still lifes, worthy of a motel. In ten years, his parents open a motel.  My mother wears saddle shoes, a skirt and cardigan. My father looks undone, like a boiled egg removed too soon from its bath. They hold hands. She’s younger, but seems much older.

My father took this photo in the summer at the highest point on Mackinac Island: Jinx, his old Navy buddy, and his wife stare out at the big lakes. My mother looks back at the camera, not with “the look” her mother used whenever anyone tried to take a picture, but definitely “a look,” something she’s not telling. 1949 someone has written on the back, but it is really 1950. Perhaps the secret is me. The sun is setting. She wraps a shawl around her shoulders. A telescope no one looks through balances on the railing. Soon my parents will elope. Her parents will not speak to her for two years.


I’m here, less than a year old, sitting between them for a holiday picture.  My dress is starched and ironed. We sit on the scratchy striped carpet in front of the fireplace in their first home.  My mother wears pearls. My father wears a cheap plaid shirt where no pattern ever met its match. The sole is coming off of his shoe. They want me to stand up, hold a candy cane, and smile. They expect a lot. I reach for that sweet. I’m trying so hard. My lips are folded into themselves with concentration.  A spare candy cane rests on my mother’s shoe in case there’s a disaster. “Merry Xmas from Bev Beth and Bud,” the Christmas card will say.

It’s our first card, it’s our last card. It is evidence there was once a family.


Elizabeth Kerlikowske says of her essay, “It is difficult for humans to mourn something they cannot remember, and yet it happens. It is truly a mystery of childhood.” Elizabeth published her first poem at 16, and she was hooked! Her work has been nominated for six Pushcart Awards.  She was recently awarded a 2017 Community Medal for the Arts in Kalamazoo. She has three kids, twin grandsons, one husband, four cats, a PhD, and a lot to do. You can find her being active on the Friends of Poetry Facebook page.