Reader essayFamily portraits look demure, serene, peaceful and happy hanging above candlelit mantles. Guests examine and admire their picture-perfect presentations of siblings, parents and grinning grandparents. Some even include a similarly smiling golden retriever, hound, poodle or other perfectly pedicured pup. Many family photos are flawlessly set by serene ponds or on the antique chaise in a spotless, tasseled, luxurious living room. My favorites are the tangerine-tinted shots taken at the precise moment the sun kisses the horizon on a beach decorated with ribbons of waves. Some portraits explode with color. Others capture a stark monochromatic moment: white on white or black on black.
When I see a family photo, I sometimes think, wouldn’t it be funny if the characters in the picture could talk? Surely those immortalized in ink and framed in gilt would tell us about the gloves-off battle mom and dad had in the car going to the studio; the way the twins tousled in a WWF-style match in the photographer’s waiting room; how the baby cried for an hour before and an hour after the sitting; and, how Dad sweated through his white cotton polo as he watched the cashier ring up the astronomical bill.
So far my brimming brood has entered into the tortuous ring of portraiture about four times. I’d be mortified if our images had mouths that could talk. The shot that would scare me the most is the one taken for the back cover of one of my books. It was an outdoor pose. The kids—who at the time were 5, 4 and 1—were bathed, perfectly quaffed, combed and cajoled with candy, cookies, even Coke. (Big mistake!) The four of us were ready as roosters. Except for one tiny detail: My husband was late coming home from work.
Trouble was on the horizon as the sun began to rapidly sink. The little light we had left was getting swallowed in dusk. Mosquitoes and my temper started flitting in a maniacal buzz. My hair (and brain) began to frizz. My baby was freaking out. My sons tousled in a wrestling match on the front lawn. So much for their shirts which, in a rare moment of insanity, I had taken the time to iron.
We waited. The baby whined. The boys wrestled. I checked my watch. We waited. The baby whined. The boys wrestled. I checked my watch. I expected my husband to show up in the nick of time to save the photographic moment. He didn’t.
Ultimately, the shot got shot without my man. Though I considered homicide and divorce, he still lives on and we’re still hitched. I do regret my hubby’s absence on the book. But, more than that I regret the way my expectations for our image to be ‘just so’ got the best of me. Every time I see that picture of the kids and me, what I remember most is the way my anger and impatience exploded in a narcissistic homage to image. When the book came out and I saw our not-so-perfect-daddy-absent-picture I vowed to take family portraiture less seriously and embrace my living, wrestling, whining, tardy family members instead of a matte image of them.
Last week we went for our fifth family ‘Say-Cheese.’ I don’t know if Jupiter and Mars were aligned or if I had somehow finally learned to let go of image and embrace my family. Whatever it was, the experience was not so bad. I affectionately and jokingly titled our evening (and the resultant souvenir) Adventures in White Cotton: A Family Portrait.
Serendipitously, none of my children had chicken pox, bed head or stains on their shirts. There were no duals, duke-outs or deaths. I’m actually still smiling in disbelief.
I wonder if the picture turned out because I wasn’t uptight about it turning out. I wonder if everyone relaxed and smiled because I wasn’t being impatient and riddled with expectations. I hope that the next time my eyes are stinging from the flash bulb, I remember not to take the picture so seriously and not to worry about wrinkly button downs and pizza stains. I hope I can be patient and kind to my husband who may have been late because of a day as cosmically difficult as mine. Most importantly of all, I hope I will smile and embrace my family in all of our typical, tender, tenacious imperfections.
Sally Miller is a Carol Stream mom, writer and speaker. Her recent book, Play with Me (FaithWalk Publishers), inspires parents to embrace the wildness and wonder in life with kids. Reach her at email@example.com.
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