The Family Photo

Throughout my childhood, my sisters and I were photographed a lot.

When we were little – my sisters pre-school, I was in kindergarten only because my mom couldn’t handle three small children at once – mom took a photography course. Being a young mom with three restless kids, no support network, and little money, she took us with her on her photography assignments. Assigned to photograph trees, she photographed trees – with us in the foreground. Assigned to photograph rocks, she photographed rocks, and us. She used to say, for the final assignment, the professor told the class they needed to photograph people – “except Mary Anne, who can take pictures of anything except her kids.”

Later, Mom posed us for the obligatory Christmas photos – one comes to mind of us sitting on ladders at Betatakin. We’re in short-shorts, she shot us from below – it’s not a great look unless you’re a pedophile. Then she decided to have her own life and stopped taking pictures of us. The last family grouping is a Sears photography studio special: the three of us tightly grouped in our “back to school” clothes, posed in front of a neutral backdrop. Braces are in evidence and feathered bangs.

Then nothing, for a number of years. Finally, when I had already graduated from college, our middle sister had just started college, and the youngest in high school, I returned to visit only to discover that mom had engaged a professional photographer to capture a group photo of us with her. Terrific.

I’m still not sure why she decided to do this. Was it her way, post-divorce, of trying to ally us with her? Was it a response to all the staged family photos that she received from relatives with families much closer than ours? Or maybe she was already mentally plotting her escape; it was only a few years later that she loaned the house to a friend, moved to Washington DC, and then abroad. Perhaps this was her last gesture towards togetherness.

We all wore costumes that represented how we wanted people to see us. I, the New Yorker, almost in all-black, pants, jacket. Mom in the red earth tones of the southwest, flowing fabric blouse and skirt. Middle sister all in an all-white pantsuit with platform sandals. Youngest in black and white polka dots, tightly fitted, a skirt and jacket. (I remember making a huge fuss that the cat should be in the photo with us. The cat, with the intelligence of cats, made her escape and is not in the photo.)

The photographer carefully posed us, taking way too long. Mom and I are sitting on her white sheepskin run on the floor, legs to one side, leaning towards each other but not touching each other or my sisters. My sisters sit on the ends of the couch behind us, legs demurely crossed, arms cradled in their laps. Behind them, the huge windows of mom’s living room frame the trees outside. We all stare blankly at the camera, our expressions made worse by the very bad retouching that the photographer did afterwards.

Friends, who see the photo for the first time, ask me if it is photoshopped because we look like we have been photographed separately and pasted into a frame together. My husband says we look like an ad for Dynasty. There’s no warmth, no contact, no sense of togetherness.

Which doesn’t surprise me. None of us felt a sense of togetherness. If we arrived at mom’s house, no one greeted us at the door. The house might be fully populated, but it felt empty. Everyone was in their own space, avoiding each other. One of my sisters told me this summer that she was high when the photo was taken – not the good, mellow kind of high; the icky strung-out kind of high. It doesn’t surprise me. By that point, we rarely fought, rarely argued. We were polite to each other, most of the time. We had reached détente.

It’s an empty photo.

When mom died this summer, we all came together for a weekend. We walked her house and agreed on what we each wanted. There were few disputes – mom had gotten rid of many of the things we remembered from childhood and much of what she had left, while precious and expensive, felt disposable to us. We split things up, met with the funeral home about her cremation, and found the dog a new home. Then, almost immediately, we went our separate ways again: middle sister back to her job, which had pressing concerns for her; youngest (the primary caregiver) to take a much-needed vacation. I stayed in the house and emptied it of mom’s things, worked with a realtor and her handyman to erase everything that made it mom’s, down to the lightbulbs, preparing it for selling.

Before splitting apart, we agreed to hold mom’s memorial on her birthday two months from then; and we agreed that we would do Christmas together in Reno. But when I reached out six weeks later, neither of them remembered about mom’s memorial – or had time to do more than the minimum to help with it. And later, as we tried to nail down Reno, it turned out the sister who lives there doesn’t have a house large enough for all of us and I would have to stay at her friend’s house or in a hotel. And my other sister didn’t feel like the hassle of traveling during the holidays. In fact, they both just want to stay home for Christmas, leaving me the choice of flying 7 hours to visit one, then 5 hours to visit the other – or choose between them. Or just stay home by myself.

I dread the thought of the holidays this year. Not because mom is gone – Christmas hasn’t been much fun with her for the past few years anyway – but because I feel sad and alone. My husband has developed pandemiphobia and refuses to leave the apartment. We made a dinner reservation for this weekend for the kind of dining we used to do, to celebrate our anniversary, and he keeps looking for excuses to cancel it. He refuses to rent cars or plan trips anywhere that isn’t visiting family. I am so sick of my apartment I can’t stand it. I was supposed to go on vacation in August, which turned into 3 days with his sister and BIL at the lake, followed by 4 days with his entire family, including his two elderly parents, in Pittsburgh. I love his parents. They have advanced cognitive decline, and kept wanting to tell me how sorry they were about my mom until I wanted to scream and run away.

I dread the idea of Thanksgiving, of having to confess to his family that we won’t be joining my family for Christmas after all – after I made them rearrange their plans so we could. They will think it’s strange, peculiar, wrong. It will trigger all of his elderly father’s fears about what happens to families after the parents die. They will insist that we come to have Christmas with them.

But I just want to go on vacation, go somewhere and have fun, and not be somewhere with elderly parents who need care, or with people complaining about their children and their lives. I want to be somewhere that I can be away from myself. And I don’t know what that looks like or how to convince my husband that we need to do this.

And so my sisters and I continue to live our lives the way that we were photographed that day: Distinct. Separate from each other. A little bit stoned and not in the good way.


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