My mother unmasked

October 14 | 2022

Among the many vintage photos of my mother (bottom right), I return time and again to this one, where Rene Rutenberg, young and spontaneous, can’t stop smiling. The year, I’m guessing, is about 1950, the event depicted, perhaps a quiz night or a talent show. Nor can I be certain whether my mother and her contemporaries are spectators or spectacles. In a related and more expansive photo, a row of heads is to be seen facing the three young women, as though the trio themselves were the object of attention. Photos, like fancy dress, conceal as much as they reveal. 

With Halloween imminent and Oktoberfest receding, talk of dressing up seems timely. At its most risqué or most nefarious, dressing up can be an attempt to hide from or altogether escape one’s identity. And yet the three women here appear in costume but not in disguise. 

Does dressing up conceal who we are or reveal our aspirations? The young woman on the left wears a Tyrolean or Alpine hat traditional for men in lederhosen. A choice in the spirit of play? In the middle, we note the giggler in the spaghetti-hair wig. The invocation of a brunette Rapunzel? And then there’s my mother in her blonde wig—a pure caprice or a desire to change hair colour? She later did so, briefly, in her courtship with my father, becoming for a single year before marriage and motherhood a peroxide blonde.