The crackers are smashed to bits and covering the wooden highchair, but not the demon-child's face smiling at my mom holding the camera. In the photo, it looks like I'm about to laugh, but that hard spontaneous intake of air is stuck in that moment. My mother has four copies of this photo in one album, and all the proofs are locked in a safety deposit box at an undisclosed bank.
If it wouldn't make my mother cry, I would burn every photo of me, especially this one. I've seen this photo plenty of times, but I have no idea how old I was then; neither does that tiny me in the photo. My crooked baby grin is probably due to the discovery of my first talent, my gift for breaking things. I love crackers, but there they are all broken on the table in front of me. I smashed them on purpose. I don't have to remember; I know this is true.
But, the cracker mess isn't the first thing that people comment on when they see the photo. Typically, they direct me to look at my hair, as if I haven't seen it before. I understand why. In all the pictures of me as a baby my hair is shaped like the top curl of an ice cream cone. It did this naturally, and no matter what it went through my hair stayed in this frozen position. My mom didn't mind. She thought my hair was adorable shaped like that. It is only hair, and it is just a picture, but it's annoying. When I look at the image of myself smiling with pride over the broken crackers, I know the smile wasn't for that mess or for that ice cream shaped hair; it's for me now. It's for my humiliation.
I conspired against myself in this moment long ago. I know I did. Now my mother is conspiring against me. She's enlarged this picture of my former demon self and had it screen-printed onto the front of a black shirt for my twenty-first birthday.
My mom states how much she loves that picture. I ask why, but she can't explain. She tells me a story about how Nicole, my big sister, spent a whole month teaching me to hold up my index finger to indicate that I was one. I never noticed. But I was holding up one bent little finger higher than the others. Neither version of me knew I was one year old, but knowing that now doesn't make the photo any less embarrassing. I won't wear the shirt. She begins to whine about something and I retreat to my room.
I step around the stacks of college books that I'll read again someday and wobble across piles of tried-on clothes I haven't worn since high school. There's a loud crack. I already know what I stepped on, but I'm scared to confirm my fears; I wonder if I'm right. I can't help myself; I peel back a few layers of the sweaters I tried on this morning, until I let out a sad little laugh. My theory was spot on. It's true what they say; being right isn't all it's cracked up to be. But my vintage Bob Dylan record certainly is.
My mom heard me crack and she made her way up the stairs to my room, cradling the shirt in her arms. She starts her how-many-times lecture and stops to let out a deep sigh that she's been holding for nearly twenty-one years. It's up to you now, she relinquishes. At least I'm not that messy anymore I proclaim, pointing at the idle child on the black shirt. She laughs. My mother laughs, hands me the shirt, and informs me the cracker mess was staged by her to make the picture cute, of course. And it's cake, not crackers.
Both heir and gift united