The first time I saw her she was 5-and-a-bit, exactly the same age as I was. We’d just moved out of the apartment on Mountain Street and into our new house on Heine Avenue.
2/365 Reflections on a Life: 2
I didn’t pay much attention to her at first. She was just there.
3/365 Reflections on a Life: 3
It wasn’t until the trouble years started that I began to take more notice of her.
4/365 Reflections on a Life: 4
The trouble years started when I was about thirteen. I was always a volatile child, at least as far as I remember or what I was told.
5/365 Reflections on a Life: 5
But once I turned thirteen it got much worse. My parents laughed about it in later years, although the laughter always seemed to be tinged with caution. They never knew when I would fly into a rage, or what would set me off.
6/365 Reflections on a Life: 6
I don’t remember what made me go to her that first time, but I remember standing in front of her, talking to her about whatever (seemed) injustice I’d just been dealt.
7/365 Reflections on a Life: 7
She had stories too. Her mother was demanding and sometimes irrational (so was mine!), she had few friends (me too), her father didn’t understand why she loved to read so much (same with me).
8/365 Reflections on a Life: 8
I’d look past her, though her doorway, into her house and think how much more calm and quiet it seemed there. She said the same about mine.
9/365 Reflections on a Life: 9
Maybe her mother was not as demanding as mine was. What if we could change places, just for a while; just to get away from the anger (our own and the anger that was directed at us)? Would anyone know? Would anyone care?
10/365 Reflections on a Life: 10
The first time we exchanged places it was like stepping into another world, at least for me. I don’t know what it was like for her, we never talked about it. I saw her mother, who looked like my mother, in a different way than I’d ever seen my own mother. Maybe it was because her mother was a stranger to me and strangers don’t yell at other people’s daughters.
11/365 Reflections on a Life: 11
Her house felt brighter, more dimensional, happy, carefree, loving, kind.
12/365 Reflections on a Life: 12
That first time, we didn’t stay long in each other’s houses. We looked around, we talked to each other’s mother and young brother then returned to our own homes, refreshed; calmer than before the exchange.
13/365 Reflections on a Life: 13
Through the following years we did the switch scores of times, each time staying longer and longer in each other’s world. Sometimes we switched places even if we hadn’t just had a fight with our mothers.
14/365 Reflections on a Life: 14
Eventually, gradually, we no longer needed to switch. The fights with our mothers slowed down, our brothers quit annoying us so much. We got jobs, went to college, moved out of the house on Heine Avenue, and moved away from our hometown.
15/365 Reflections on a Life: 15
We forgot about each other. We forgot about our trips into each other’s lives. We became adults, married and had children.
16/365 Reflections on a Life: 16
One day, long after that first exchange, I was back visiting my childhood home. Something made me remember her (perhaps my own teenage daughter’s presence) and I started thinking about the switches.
17/365 Reflections on a Life: 17
Then I told my daughter about my time as a teenager, growing up in the house on Heine Avenue. I told her of the fierce arguments I had with my mother. I told her about the girl in the mirror. I explained how we switched places: the girl and I placing our foreheads together, then our fingertips, then pushing through to the other side.
18/365 Reflections on a Life: 18
Talking about it, I wondered if we ever switched back that last time, whenever that last time was? Was I living the wrong life? Was she living the life I should have lived?
19/365 Reflections on a Life: 19
I decided to visit her again, to see if she could remember if we ever switched back that last time, if she remembered that last time. I walked to where I always met her…
20/365 Reflections on a Life: 20
…she was not where I last saw her. I asked my mother where she went. What had she done with her?
21/365 Reflections on a Life: 21
My mother heard me say, “Mom, what happened to the big mirror in your room? Did it break? Did you get rid of it?”
My mom replied that she’d only moved the mirror to the back of her bedroom door. She seemed to sense panic in my voice, but didn’t ask why.
22/365 Reflections on a Life: 22
“Thank God,” I thought, as I hurried to the bedroom, “she is still safe. I can still see her.”
23/365 Reflections on a Life: 23
We still looked alike and her house still looked more real than my own childhood home. She didn’t remember if we’d changed back, and asked if it really mattered. Weren’t we both happy right now?
24/365 Reflections on a Life: 24
She was right; I was happy. I had a husband and two children that I loved very much. My daughter and I were much closer than my mom and I had been, and while my son had inherited my volatility, he was growing out of that (very long) stage.
25/365 Reflections on a Life: 25
Despite being a grown woman, each visit to my mother’s house after that included a visit to her bedroom mirror to remember the child, the teenager, the adult who looked just like me but was somehow a better version of me, who lived in a better place than I did.
26/365 Reflections on a Life: 26
We never considered changing places again, but I always still wondered what life in that other world would have been like and if it was really my life in there.
27/365 Reflections on a Life: 27
After my mother died, I assumed her mother died too; but did she die like my mother did, slowly forgetting words, places, people, how to walk, how to form coherent sentences, how to swallow? I hoped for both their sakes they were spared that nightmare.
28/365 Reflections on a Life: 28
Six months after my mother’s death I visited the mirror again while gathering memorabilia from my childhood home, but could not look directly at it, could not say goodbye to my friend from fifty-something years ago. I noticed she was absent too.
29/365 Reflections on a Life: 29
On the way back to Bethesda, hauling a U-Haul loaded with furniture, boxes of photos childhood memories, and my dad’s old chainsaw, I felt a pang of regret in my gut that I’d not taken the mirror with me. We surely could have found room for it in our house and it would have been safe. It would have been comforting to have her with me all the time. (You might be thinking that she’s in every mirror, but there you would be wrong. She is only in that one mirror. I have never seen her in any other.)
30/365 Reflections on a Life: 30
More recently I visited my childhood home for the last time. It was empty, the estate sale agents had done their job well. It was void of everything I knew from my childhood and teen years, from my visits as an adult. It was missing the people I loved, the furniture I sat in, the art on the walls. I walked around, taking pictures for a possible blog post. I went into every room, opened each closet, and peeked into drawers and cabinets. I expected to feel sadness, but instead just felt emptiness.
31/365 Reflections on a Life: 31
On the way home, this time on an airplane, I realized that when I was in that empty house, in my mother’s empty bedroom, I forgot to see if the mirror was still there on the back of the door or if the estate sale agents had sold it to someone wanting a sturdy mirror. Either way, someday someone else will look in that mirror. Will they see the shadow of a lonely teenage girl, angry at her mother about this or that injustice? She’s still there, I know it. I just wonder if it is me or her.
[Author’s note: Here’s the whole story with a photo of the mirror]