The Cameo Mirror

ghost in the mirror

Angela never been entirely certain where the mirror had come from. It had been a constant presence in her childhood, waiting at the top of the stairs of her grandmother’ house, where she had to pivot to the right and step up onto the open hallway very quickly so that she couldn’t catch a glimpse of yourself in it’s wavy, greying surface.

She wasn’t sure how she knew not to look. It was something she felt more than something she had ever been told. Somehow, she’d adopted the notion that to stare into the age-warped glass would be to look at a cameo pin and find yourself in the silhouette. Even the frame – tone on tone scrollwork,  painted white with a stylized silhouette at the top – reminded her of those old brooches.

It was worse at night, even with the nightlight that was perpetually on, just beneath the mirror. Her grandmother was afraid of walking down the step to the landing in her sleep, she said, and of falling down the main stairway.

But then, her grandmother also hid in the back hallway whenever there was a storm, and kept four-leaf clovers pressed into random books, and screamed when the power went out, and didn’t have a single room that didn’t have one of those nightlights and a rosary tucked in a drawer.

Grandma’s rosaries, Angela thought, were as much a part of the woman as her rose-scented face cream and her need for ‘a little something’ after dinner. (The ‘something’ was always sweet – Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, Stella D’oro anisette toast, a scoop of chocolate ice cream with a drizzle of Hershey’s syrup and a spritz of canned whipped cream – she called it ‘gush gush’ because of the sound it made – on top.)

As a child, Angela had happily indulged in those after-dinner treats. As an adult, she recognized her grandmother’s dessert habit as both a ritual, and a way for the old woman to hold onto youth and innocence.

Just like she’d held onto that mirror.

Her grandmother, Angela reflected, was the only person who ever looked directly into the glass. It was too old, too greyed-out, too warped to be of any use… wasn’t it? She wondered what the old woman saw.

“… which brings us to the cameo mirror…” the attorney was saying, and Angela was jolted back to the present, where the furniture she had climbed on, played under, found refuge and solace and comfort in as a young girl, was draped with sheets, like so many judgmental ghosts. She could almost hear them whispering: You should have visited more. You should have called more frequently. You couldn’t even bother sending postcards when you were traveling.

“It belonged to your great -grandmother who brought it with her from Italy, and your grandmother would prefer it stay with the house,” the lawyer said. “She’s willed her house to you, Angela, but if you don’t want to live in it, she’s asked that you take the mirror.”

Angela thought about her sunny, plant-filled apartment, doing a mental comparison with the house. “I don’t have to keep the rest of the furniture?”

“Only what you want,” she was told. “What you don’t wish to keep we will arrange to sell on your behalf.”

“I’ll take the house,” she said.

“And the mirror?”

“And the mirror.”

She signed her name to a thousand documents, until her hand began to cramp and all she could think of was to go home and take a bath before she began to figure out what of the furniture she would keep – the baby grand, definitely, and the grandfather clock – but not the sectional, and absolutely not her grandparents’ bed.

It took a month for the paperwork to go through, but Angela used the time well. She packed her apartment, hired movers, arranged for the house to be cleaned and the yard to be groomed, and picked out new pieces to replace those she was leaving behind those she was selling.

Finally, she was moved in, the house she had loved as a child becoming her own now that she was adult. Touches of her grandparents lingered – the table of African violets that Grandma had sung to every morning, the red leather wing chair her grandfather had sat in to read his National Geographic and Newsweek and Model Railroader magazines, the piano that had been a fort and a ship and a mansion for Angela and her dolls before she’d learned to make music on it.

Tired from moving and memories, she made a simple supper and took her coffee out to the back stoop where she watched the fireflies in the yard.

Then she walked up the stairs.

She was certain that the nightlight on the landing had been removed before she moved in, but it was on now, casting it’s frosted-white glow across the landing.

As she had when she was a child, Angela crossed the square space between steps and hall very quickly, without looking at the cameo mirror. Then she stopped. Her grandmother had always smiled when looking into the old glass. The probate attorney had said her great-grandmother brought it over from Italy. What harm could it do, she wondered, to look at a piece of art that had given the women in her family such joy.

Slowly, cautiously, Angela turned to face the mirror, and lifted her head to gaze directly into it. She expected something bizarre, like a fun-house version of her own face. Instead, she saw a room with a wide window looking onto a garden of wildflowers. How could this be? She knew the mural on the opposite wall was both obstructed by a pillar and depicted an impressionistic take on a café scene.

Angela stared at the scene. The flowers were moving, as if swayed by a breeze. After the span of several heartbeats, a figure came into view.

“Grandma!” she breathed. She supposed she should have been frightened, but somehow, she knew she was safe.

There was no sound from the mirror, but Angela caught the scent of that rose face cream, and smiled.

The old woman kissed her fingertips and then blew the kiss toward the mirror’s inner surface.

Angela returned the gesture, saying, “Yes, I understand. I love you, too.”

The image wavered and disappeared, and the glass was, again, just a warped fading mirror.

Angela stared at it for a long while, understanding, finally, her grandmother’s attachment to it. She must have seen her own mother’s reflection, in whatever happy place that woman had envisioned.

After that night, Angela never dashed past the cameo mirror again, but instead paused to gaze into it. Most nights, she saw only her own reflection, slightly distorted. But sometimes she saw the old woman who had loved her enough to pass on her treasured mirror.

Angela missed her, of course. But seeing her in the mirror was enough.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 The Cameo Mirror by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.