What I Would See if I Looked in the Mirror of Erised
My heart’s deepest desire was to see my mother again, yes, but also to glimpse a portrait of normalcy that I had never known in the years of her illness.
Twenty years ago, magic reached the United States, and Lesley and I were firmly under its spell. In a small East Texas town, where the only places to buy novels were a shack-like used books shop (since closed) and a sterile entertainment retailer (also shuttered), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came to us through a teacher. We’d sped through our assigned class readings, bored only children fueled by a nascent desire to succeed, and were given the two class copies of JK Rowling’s debut to fill reading time. Years later, it would land on a shortlist of proposed banned books pieced together by our school district, but our teacher didn’t even ask if it’d be okay to send it home. During recess, we eschewed the green and purple metal jungle gym and read in the shade of the large live oak in the yard of our elementary school. If one of us forgot our copy, we gazed over the other’s shoulder and stared expectantly when we were ready for the page to turn. It went on like this for weeks until we finished the book—and then we started it again.
In the years since we first laid eyes on the cover, Harry has made his way into the lives of millions of people, spawned communities, and made its author into an icon celebrated alongside Roald Dahl and C. S. Lewis. But for all of the magic that Harry brought into my life—the spells committed to memory to cast on unwitting classmates; the pure fantasy of children having an enchanted castle at their disposal—there was one thing that threatened to shatter it all. Much like our literary hero, I knew exactly what I would see if I were ever to gaze into the gilded Mirror of Erised: I would see my family whole and intact. I would see my mom.
My mom gave me my love of reading. One of her parently stories, the kind that she proudly relayed so often I felt like I remembered it, detailed my first full sentence when I was two. Leaning on the doorframe to my bedroom, she asked if I wanted her to read a book to me before bedtime. In her retelling, I replied, “Dada will read me book.” Despite her obvious pride in my bookishness, I wonder if she was a little wounded that I didn’t ask for her. Because, as with most things in my childhood, it was Mom who I remember taking up the daily charge of fostering my love of words. We would curl up together on her blue and white floral comforter and take turns reading pages of fiction about orphaned children who lived in a boxcar and collections of Shel Silverstein’s outré poetry.
Once, when she had been too weak to stay on top of me, I fell behind in the public library summer reading challenge, a competition I had always snagged top honors in. Panicked, she took me to the library and started plucking anything remotely age-appropriate from the shelves. Frustrated with the blandness of an illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci that we’d tackled in a marathon Saturday afternoon of reading to get me back on track for the award, I waged a quiet rebellion: On the last page, after hours of pronouncing his Italian last name correctly, I turned on my full Texas twang: “Leonardo duh Veenk-ee.” She was livid. We both started to cry.
The built-in shelves lining our living and dining rooms were stuffed with books, but Mom wasn’t literary in the way that I would later learn is praised in college English courses. Her favorite author was Stephen King. The cover of her copy of It—with a gnarled green hand gripping the grates of a drain gate as a paper boat, not unlike the ones I liked to send downstream when heavy rain fell, floated toward it—caused me to give storm drains a wide berth, a habit that would last well into adulthood.
But she read constantly, diligently. We read aloud to each other and we sat in silence, the only sound the slick of another page turned or my brief interrogations about pronunciation (“Sound it out,” she’d say) or meaning (“Go grab the dictionary”). Mom, I suspect, retreated into words for many of the same reasons that I do. Chiefly, to escape life and its constant indignities. Even King’s horrors could have been a retreat for my mother, who endured a slow and painful seven-year battle with breast cancer. Mom used books to interrupt a steady stream of futile medical treatments and necessary ruminations on a young mother’s mortality, the planning and preparation for an inevitable death. And so it was fitting that just a few months after she died, Harry Potter found me, and the cycle continued.
The Mirror of Erised looms large in the Harry Potter canon, even if its appearances in the books are scant. We first see the mirror in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when our eleven-year-old protagonist finds it in an abandoned classroom. Briefly enraptured, he returns to it three nights in a row to see himself flanked by the dead family of which he has no memory—his red-headed mother, his wiry and bespectacled father. On the third night, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore—who has watched the young orphan become lost in the mirror’s illusion—explains its function. Backwards, mirror-like, the inscription on it reads: “Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi”—or, with spaces rearranged: “I show not your face but your heart’s desire.”
Dumbledore tells a crestfallen Harry that the mirror will be moved to a new home the next day and makes him promise not to look for it. “Men have wasted away before it entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible,” Dumbledore cautions. It’s one of those instances in the Potterverse that feels almost too on the nose. The name was desire backwards, see? The inscription was all right there for you to unlock before Dumbledore, in his sage wisdom, ties it into a neat bow.
After dedicating a chapter to it in Sorcerer’s Stone and using it as a key part in resolving Harry’s first grand adventure at Hogwarts, Rowling seems content to let it rest. The mirror doesn’t appear in the books again until a passing mention in the seventh and final installment of the franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Her wizarding world is full of such thin but well-worn layers, the things she constructed and then let languish through thousands of pages. But even as the books became more fantastical, new magical contraptions eclipsing the last as she settled into her stories, the Mirror of Erised stayed with me. Like Harry, I returned to it night after night.
Lesley knew the basis of my fantasy well. One of the mirror’s tricks, however, is that only the person standing in front of it can truly see it. My friend understood that I would see my mother alive again, but I never explained that in my own Mirror of Erised, Mom wasn’t bald anymore. She had no need for the hundreds of hats and colorful scarves she amassed through endless bouts with chemo. Her chest was full again, her dress swelling under two breasts instead of one. She stood eternally sun-kissed, her skin tan and shoulders freckled—not sallow and swollen as she had been lying in hospice.
My friend understood that I would see my mother alive again, but I never explained that in my own Mirror of Erised, Mom wasn’t bald anymore.
More than that, I didn’t explain to Lesley how I, too, looked different in the mirror. I was back in the patterned dresses my mom used to buy for me, instead of the boys’ jean shorts my widowed dad purchased before the start of fourth grade—the ones I cried and threw away after a classmate mocked them. In the fantasy reflection, I was whole again, too: smiling and content, laughing easily, not saddled with the anticipation of the next time I’d be reminded that I was now a motherless child. My heart’s deepest desire was to see my mother again, yes, but also to glimpse a portrait of normalcy that I had never known in the years of her illness or after her death.
Years after she introduced the Mirror of Erised, Rowling revealed her own deepest desire: “I would, at the moment, probably see myself very much as I am because one of the most wonderful things that could possibly have happened has happened and I’ve had another child—myself and family,” she explained to comedian Stephen Fry in 2003. “I’d also like to see what Harry sees—my mother alive again. There’d be room over my shoulder to see a scientist inventing a cigarette that would be healthy, that would be lovely.”
It’s a telling response. At the core of it is Rowling’s assertion that she would see things largely as they appeared; that her magical mirror’s powers were secondary to life as she was living it. It’s only after recognizing that level of fulfilment that she wishes for the dead to be revived.
I think about the Mirror of Erised and its prompt disappearance from the books often. In my alternate version of the story, scripted in my head throughout my childhood, Harry somehow bewitched the mirror to draw his family out of it. But Rowling, like Dumbledore, didn’t want Harry—or people like me—to train our focus on it. All of the magic in Harry’s world and mine couldn’t bring what we had lost back to us. The story had to move on.
All of the magic in Harry’s world and mine couldn’t bring what we had lost back to us. The story had to move on.
Throughout the seven Harry Potter books, I would never find such a visceral link to my own life as I did in the Mirror of Erised. Yet slowly, the Mirror became a latent fascination to me rather than an all-consuming fantasy. Rowling eventually pushed me past it and into other corners of her created world, and I received what a child in the throes of grief so desperately needed from Harry’s world: a window into something grander than my own reality. As a swell of converts joined a fandom I’d first seen as mine and Lesley’s, I found a community that sustained me long after books were tucked back onto shelves, and together we obsessed over characters and Easter eggs, brewing up fan theories like potions. I felt like a kid again—and I also understood what my mom must have felt when she read her beloved Stephen King.
Had she been able to read the Harry Potter series, the Mirror of Erised might have seemed to her little more than a useful literary device, one that quickly faded from the books. It would eventually fade for me as well. But not before Rowling taught me something about my very real, very tangible grief: that it was okay to forget about it sometimes, however briefly.
When Dumbledore caught him in front of the mirror, Harry asked the headmaster what he saw when he stood before it. “I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks. One can never have enough socks,” Dumbledore tells him. But in Deathly Hallows, one of the rare mentions of the Mirror of Erised throughout the rest of the series, Dumbledore reveals how his sister died years ago in a horrific magical bout, and Harry is stricken with realization: “At last he knew what Dumbledore would have seen when he looked in the Mirror of Erised, and why Dumbledore had been so understanding of the fascination it had exercised over Harry.”
On its face, it’s a sweet sentiment: someone spending their life longing for what is lost, the passage of time unable to lessen the depth of his grief. But the thought that Dumbledore’s deepest desire, even in his old age, was to be with his long-dead family member disturbed me when I first read it. Would I always ache with this same loss? Would I forever be the little girl who only wanted to see her family as she once knew it, complete again?
As a child, fresh trauma had made my vision singular. I often wonder what I would see if I encountered the mirror today. Now, certainly, what I would see has evolved—new loves and new goals, deep desires more complex than those of my nine-year-old self. But the truth that I have begun to accept, one that I perhaps intuitively sensed as a child, is that I will never reach an age or a level of content that would completely erase my mother from my Mirror of Erised.
Abby Johnston is a writer and editor at Texas Monthly, where she focuses on culture. Her reporting and criticism has appeared in Salon, Vice, Dissent, the Austin Chronicle, and—when no one will pay her for it—on Twitter @ajohnston12.