The Family Photo

There are a few moments in life that beg to be photographed.  With the advent of the smart-phone, there are relatively few excuses for not taking the picture.  With the broad reach of social media, there is no reason that the study hall monitor who kicked you out of her classroom in tenth grade shouldn’t have seen photographic evidence that you have improved as a human being, and that you have redeemed your ways and managed to create and raise acceptable children as well.  The cellular camera, the convenience of the save and send feature means that our lives are more documented than ever before.

Several years ago a friend of ours paid a hefty sum of money to a “professional” photographer to take formal pictures of his wedding.  When the photos finally arrived, a year later, they had lain waste to a chemical spill in the photo lab.  His wife’s naturally blonde hair was a lovely shade of neon green.  Not long after the album arrived in the mail, it landed in the trash, a sore memento of a short-lived marriage.  Our friend said it was fitting for the way things turned out.  Who wants a fancy photo album of their deepest scars?

But welcome to 2017, the era of perfectly focused cameras in every pocket, complete with filters to capture the nostalgia of a moment, enhance the blue of a child’s eyes, or soften the effects of time and sunburn.  There is no need to wait for those polished and professional wedding photos, graduation photos, first peeks at new babies.  They are all right within our own pockets.

Last week we had a rare occasion in our family, and I spent a good deal of time thinking about exactly how to best document the occasion, not for my own benefit, but for my mother.  My mother just had her seventieth birthday a month ago.  She is the best mother and grandmother I have ever met in my life.  She loves deeply and without apology.  She gives much and asks very little.  The little that she has asked for has consistently been family photos.  It was always on the to-do list, but never made the calendar.  And as the years marched by, and the family dynamic got more complicated, and more wide spread, three kids turned into three kids plus in laws, then the grandkids trickled in one by one.  Schedules got tricky, visits from out of staters were rushed, the family photo never developed.

For two days, both of my out of state siblings, along with both of their spouses and all of their children were not only in the same state, but the same house.  All six of my parents’ grandchildren were occupying the same back yard, snacking from the same bag of chips, swatting the same mosquitos.  The plot for the perfect family photo for my mother started thickening in my head weeks ago.  I envisioned matching t-shirts, smiling, freshly washed faces.  I mapped out groupings, three pairs of siblings semi-circled around a doting pair of grand parents.  I foresaw a frame-worthy treasure that would bring my mother to new levels of grandmotherly pride and joy.  The photo that resulted was quite different.

When two thirds of your family lives several hours away, visiting time is fleeting and frenzied.  There is never enough time for all of the things that are planned.  Who has time to go buy themed t-shirts?  Who is willing to interrupt the two granddaughters swapping whispers and examining each other’s book collections for the first time in two years?  Who wants to break up the Pac-Man tournament?  Who wants to cut off the wrestling match in the living room floor?  Who wants to pry two of the boys out of the back of grandpa’s truck and tell them to put away the squirt guns, it’s time to have a picture taken.  When two thirds of your family lives hours away, you cling to those moments, where your kids can laugh and play and wrestle and whisper, and lock them away in memory.  That’s the family portrait.  That’s the keepsake.  The oldest of the kids is headed off to college in another year.  The youngest is still in pre-school.  We may never again have all of the crew together for a weekend like this again.

Right before my brother’s family packed up their car to head on to their next destination I managed to get all six of the kids in one frame.  There were no matching t-shirts.  Their faces weren’t necessarily clean.  They were war-weary travelers, scarred by bug-bites and donut icing. The little one cried and tried to hide, but was caught up in a laughing wrestling-hug by one of the teenagers.  We have proof that we had a magical weekend, a weekend that felt like a little slice of what normal should be like but never can be.  We have one quickly taken picture of six people growing in three different worlds, but connected by a pair of grandparents who saturate each of them with love.  In that frame, we are going to place an image of a moment featuring scabby knees and wrinkled shorts.

I’ve spent most of the week with my family.  I’ve ignored the mess at my own house for the most part.  The hampers are overflowing, the couch is full of socks to be sorted.  The hooks on the door are buried under piles of discarded shirts and summer gear.  My house is a mess, but my head feels clearer then it has in a long time.  The laundry will get done in time.  The floors will get vacuumed again soon.  We will catch up on our life later.  We caught some pictures, and we’ll do our modern-day duty and post them for the world to see that we have a functioning family, even if it doesn’t quite look picture perfect, it’s perfect for us.  Even if it doesn’t quite feel normal, being spread across the country, we can hold onto our weekend of normalcy together.  For now, I will bask in the glow of worn out kids and time spent with the people I love.  I will flip through the photo album in my mind and lovingly touch each face and remember this week.  We’ve got a long time until we all get together again, and until then I’ve still got at least six loads of laundry to go.

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