Three Girls On a Stone Wall Four Siblings On a Rock – by Elizabeth Jannuzzi
Photo: “Entre Nous”
Credit: Willabel Cole Mitchell
Description: We see the backs of three young girls. Ages maybe 6 or 7. They are sitting on a stone wall overlooking a landscape. They wear sweet little girl dresses and have their arms draped around each other. The sky is fluffy with clouds. The picture is black and white except for the girls who are slightly colorized. The intent of this photo is obvious. The girls are close, loving, and in this together. In a moment of quiet contemplation, they lean on each other as if to say, “I’m here for you.”
At some point, in the early 1990s, this photo of three girls sitting on a stone wall was very popular. Every gift and bookstore offered this sweet image on greeting cards, mugs, and posters. The photo hit a chord with women of a certain age who had close relationships with their sisters or friends. My friend Alexis told me she and her two best friends bought the photo together and they each have a framed copy displayed at their homes. My friend Kelly bought the same card for her two younger sisters.
When I was in my early twenties as a freshman or sophomore in college, I bought the poster of the three girls sitting on the stone wall, which I’ve since learned is called “Entre Nous” by photographer Willabel Cole Mitchell. I had the poster mounted on foamboard at a framing store. Then, feeling very proud of myself, I presented the foamboard poster to my mother as a birthday gift. The three little girls, I explained, in case she couldn’t figure it out, represented me and my two older sisters, my mother’s three daughters.
My mother accepted the gift graciously. But although the foamboard poster came with a hanging wire, she never hung it on a wall. It lived for many years perched on her dresser, leaning against her bedroom wall, never committing to a permanent location. However well-intentioned my gift was, the poster was problematic from the start.
To begin with, the photograph didn’t accurately represent me and my two older sisters, Julia and Roseann. My mother, a woman who wore corduroys and Keds and often had dirt under her nails from gardening, didn’t dress her daughters in cute little outfits with bowties in the back. Also, in the photo, the young girls have their arms wrapped around each other. This was unlikely to happen with me and my sisters. We are half Irish, half German on both the maternal and paternal sides, so physical displays of affection among my family are rare, if not non-existent.
Not showing affection didn’t mean I didn’t feel affection for my sisters. In fact, at that time in my early twenties when I gave my mother this gift, my sisters and I were experiencing a resurgence of sisterly love. We made it out on the other side of our tumultuous teen years, and for the first time in a long time, we enjoyed each other’s company. Weekend nights we’d get dressed together in Roseann’s bedroom, blasting “Pump Up the Jam” while brushing our hair and taking turns reviewing our outfits in the mirror. Then we’d hit the local bars for a raucous night out. Our cousins started calling us “the Basslerettes,” Bassler being our surname. Although the name was probably meant as a putdown, hinting we were vapid party girls, I loved that my sisters and I had a group nickname. I loved our new connection. I loved being one of the three Basslerettes. And perhaps that is why I was drawn to the poster of the three little girls.
Now, in retrospect, if I had to guess what my mother was thinking when she received the gift, I’d bet she was thinking: Where’s my son in this photo? Where’s William? You see, I didn’t just have two sisters. I also had an older brother. He died in a car crash at the age of 21 at least a year, maybe two, before I gave my mother the gift. Perhaps she thought: There should be four children in this photo. We should see the backs of three girls and a boy sitting on that stone wall looking out at the beautiful scenery. Is that why she never found a permanent place for the poster?
My mother would never say such a thing. Not only because she was kind but because we didn’t talk about my brother. No one spoke of him, his death, or the grief that swirled around our Colonial house. She accepted the gift graciously and displayed it on her dresser, even if she didn’t commit to hanging it on a wall. And as it turns out, not hanging the poster was the right call.
I look at the photo now and feel pangs of guilt. If I were to investigate my intentions of giving my mother that gift, what can I say they were? Did I really just want to celebrate her three daughters? Or did I want to assure her we’d all be okay without my brother William? How callous of me to present this to her without thinking she might feel her son’s absence from the photo like a dagger in the stomach. Or maybe I’m overthinking this and she liked the gift. Maybe she understood that I was trying to say: he’s gone but you still have three daughters.
She didn’t for long.
About five years after I gave my mother that mounted poster of the three little girls, my older sister Julia died by suicide at the age of 29. Now, what did my mother think when looking at the poster perched on her dresser? Did it give her fond memories that at one time she had three daughters? Or make her grief-stricken that once again another one of her children was erased from her life? Was the poster something she overlooked in the mornings while getting dressed? Or was my gift a daily painful reminder of her loss?
In 2000, my parents sold my childhood home and moved to a smaller condo. The foamboard poster of the three little girls was transported to my parents’ vacation home in Pennsylvania. This second home has become a refugee camp for family photos, a segregated area for displaced memories. Here in the old farmhouse, displayed haphazardly on shelves and dressers are family pictures of my childhood that are too painful to look at every day but too precious to be thrown away.
Once again, the foamboard poster of the three little girls is not hung on a wall but perched on another dresser, this time in the bunk room where the grandkids sleep. When I happen to gaze upon the poster while making up the kids’ beds or coming in to say good night, I’m pained for two reasons. First, at my ignorance in giving the gift to my mother in the first place. Of giving a gift that erased my brother from existence. Second, it is an agonizing reminder that I’m no longer one of three sisters. There are just two of us left.
I could dispose of the poster. With my mother gone, no one in my family would notice it was missing. But like my mother, I can’t bring myself to hang it on a wall or throw it away.
What I want is a chance to redo the photo gift. I’d find a picture from our childhood of all four of us. I’d have that photo blown up to poster size. Instead of mounting it on foam board, I’d pay the expense to have it framed properly with matting, glass, and a beautiful wood frame. And in this time travel fantasy, a day after receiving this photo gift, my mom would get a nail and a hammer and hang this framed photo of her four children on the wall.
Photo: “Four Siblings On a Rock”
Credit: Mom, maybe Dad
Description: Four young children, three girls and one boy, are hanging out on a rock. Ages maybe 11, 10, 8, and 6. The boy is standing on the ground and leaning up against the rock, holding a stick. The oldest is sitting on the rock in a rec soccer t-shirt. She has something in her mouth. There is a girl in overalls leaning up against a tree. The youngest (me) is looking down at her brother. The intent of this photo is obvious. These four siblings were here. They existed.
Elizabeth Janunuzzi is the operations and communications manager at Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing organization. Her work has been featured in Pangyrus, Cagibi, and Mother Always Write. In 2018, she received an honorable mention in Memoir Magazine’s Recovery Contest. Elizabeth lives in New Jersey with her husband and three almost out-of-the-nest kids. In her free time, she is slowly section hiking the Appalachian Trail. Elizabeth is working on a memoir and essays about loss, motherhood, and her recovery from alcoholism. You can find links to her publications at https://bookinc.org/member/ejannuzzi.