“Mourning: a cruel country where I’m no longer afraid.”

—Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary


I study a photograph of my mother taken on her return to the Island as a widow in her forties. What do I see? A woman in a bright red top and black pants, neither smiling nor frowning, posed in front of a painted canvas. Her back is very straight and her hands, showing signs of arthritis in the slightly swollen crooked fingers, are spread flat on her lap.

Something draws the eyes to this woman’s face. The camera has caught her in between emotions. We do not know whether she is about to smile or cry.

In his book on photography as memorial, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes talks about the two planes in a photograph that interest him. The first he calls the studium, and it represents the actual occasion, meaning, or intent of the photograph. But it is the detail that defies analysis, what Barthes calls the punctum, that interests him the most.

The punctum is the point of intersection between viewer and image, that detail that draws us into the picture as a shared human event. It is the thing, whether intended by the photographer or not, that touches you or triggers a quickening of the pulse, an irresistible impulse to look closer.

When I was asked for photos to be displayed at the funeral home, I looked through her albums and found dozens of pictures, but I could not find one that had the right tone, the “air,” as Barthes calls it.

My brother had visited our mother several months before her final illness and had found a photo that he scanned and sent to me.  She had told him that she did not like it, but had not given a reason. She had kept it put away in a box. I looked at it occasionally, drawn to her haunting look of almost-revelation. It had been taken when she first returned to the Island after my father’s death. She looked younger in this photo than I remembered her, maybe because she had taken to wearing conservative, matronly clothes and her hair pulled back while she spent her years as a Navy wife-in-waiting in the U.S., the time she always called her exilio.

But in this photo she has regained her true age. Her hair is shiny with only a hint of gray at the part, her tan arms are bare, and she looks slim and fit. But in spite of her rejuvenation there is a seriousness that belies the outfit, clearly donned for an evening out.

The punctum of this photo for me is the little spray of white flowers adorning her hair. Doesn’t a woman have to be thinking of something celebratory or someone special to put flowers in her hair? I had never seen my mother indulge in anything quite as impractical and frivolous. In fact, she was as concerned about bugs on her body as any child who had experienced the parasite scares of her childhood on a tropical island. I looked at the photo for other signs of her transformation, but kept coming back to the two disparate qualities: the hidden grief in her expression, and the flirtatiousness of the little white flowers in her hair.

On the painted canvas behind her there is an idealized seashore scene at dusk: a background of sinuous palm trees, placid ocean, and a black mountain range. Perhaps this is how our beaches looked once, before the litter, the hotels and condos, and the tourists. It may have been the image my mother carried in her mind all those years when she yearned for return.

An ordinary woman, she was a muse to me. It was her ineffable air of timidity and even fear, precariously balanced by passionate desires and dreams, of living on her own terms, that I had been trying all of my years as a writer to capture.

But I could not create the visual image I had in my mind’s eye. I had to show that photo taken by an anonymous photographer of a woman in the midst of a struggle, a new widow, alone in a place that had grown strange over the many years of her absence.

Judith Ortiz Cofer is the author of books in various genres. Her most recent books are for children. They include A bailar: Let’s Dance, a bilingual picture book, and Animal Jamboree: Latino Folktales, a bilingual reader for older kids . Another picture book, The Poet Upstairs, is forthcoming. Her essay is part of a book-length memoir tentatively titled The Cruel Country: A Cultural Elegy.  She teaches creative writing at the University of Georgia.

 Artwork by Gabrielle Katina