The Family PortraitThomas M. Ledin
Christmas day, 1977 my family posed for a picture taken by Mr. Bellows, our next door neighbor. That photo has become the benchmark for all family portraits taken of my family since, not a single one has equaled its magnificence. In that wonderful picture my family is much smaller than it is today, there are no sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, or grandchildren, just my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, and me. We're all sitting up amazingly straight, and our smiles are so perfect they almost look drawn on. This photo is entirely beautiful in its simplicity, and truly impressive in its rarity.
I admit that a good family portrait doesn't seem like anything to get too excited about, but consider the fact that every year since 1977 my poor mother has tried unsuccessfully to improve upon that masterpiece. My mom has that picture hanging in an ugly gold frame, large as life, opposite the front door in her house. It hangs there as a trophy for all to see. "My perfect little family," she says every time I follow her in the front door.
I can recall with more than a little guilt the years my mother tried to corral us into neat little two rowed formations for a photo, and the grief we all gave her. We never made it easy on her, whether it was bunny ears behind Julie's head, or Josh pinching the sensitive part on the back of my arm, or my dad's favorite, passing gas a second before the picture was snapped. From 1977 on, no picture that contained my entire family came out well. We got some nice pictures of individuals, even a group of two or three, but when any more than that were told to sit still and smile somebody inevitably messed it up.
It wasn't always our fault, in 1991 we thought for sure the curse had been broken. It was the day before my sister's wedding, and mom arranged to have the photographer at the rehearsal dinner to make a valiant attempt to break her slump. We had two additions to the family, my sister-in-law, and my soon to be brother-in-law. The introduction of these new variables increased the difficulty level considerably, but we were prepared. The photographer posed us like were modeling for the cover of Perfect Family Monthly, and we all behaved ourselves. Aunt Lucy stood by the photographer and snapped a few pictures with her Polaroid camera. After our photo shoot we gathered around Lucy's magically appearing Polaroids, which came out terribly blurry, however, our faces could be made out, and nobody was doing anything stupid. My mother was so happy she almost cried. She knew in about three weeks the professional's proofs would arrive, and she would be able to hang another perfect family portrait opposite the front door near the stairs.
I was there the day the proofs came, the pictures of the wedding were beautiful, but there were no rehearsal pictures in the package. During the phone call with the photographer to find out where they were, my mom burst into tears and hung up. "He lost the negatives," she said in a flat voice as she left the kitchen. I heard her pause by the '77 wonder picture, and then proceed upstairs. I vowed then that I would join my mother's cause and cooperate at every single photo-op.
It's been eight years since the rehearsal dinner, and a second decent portrait has yet to be taken. We've had plenty of opportunities, my wedding, Dad's retirement party, and eight Christmases. During that eight years five grandkids have arrived, and the difficulty of getting the perfect picture has increased exponentially. My mom had almost completely given up on her quest and I was not the champion of her cause I had hoped to be.
There we were the entire family together, twenty-two years after the perfect portrait was taken. There were no smiles to photograph that day. As I walked into my mother's house with my son on my hip, we stopped and starred at the portrait, and my son asked, "Who are they Daddy?" I couldn't answer him, I recognized no one. Standing over my dad's casket with my brother and sister, I could not stop thinking about the second perfect portrait my mom never got.
My mother did not make much of an appearance the day of the wake; she came downstairs for a bit, mainly to thank everyone for coming. My brother, sister and I went to her house the next day, before making the various trips to the airport. As we opened the front door we noticed immediately that the perfect portrait of 1977 was gone, and in its place was a portrait from 1995. It was the worst picture ever taken of my family. In it, my eyes are closed, my brother is leaning down to scold his misbehaving son, my sister is yawning, two grandchildren are facing away from the camera, and my dad's hand is planted squarely on my Mother's left breast. In that picture my mother is wearing the biggest smile I have ever seen. When we finally tore ourselves away from 1977's replacement, we saw that every wall was now home to at least one of our year's worth of terrible family portraits. By the stairs, 1981, where my brother was hung over and looked like hell, and my sister was frowning. Near the dinning room table was 1987 where my dad was grabbing my ears. 1990 was on the wall next to the bathroom, it was almost perfect, except for my sister-in-law's eyes were rolled back in her head, and my tongue was doing something strange. We wandered around the house for twenty minutes in silence looking at these framed portraits that had been hidden away in the attic. They were awful examples of how a family should pose for pictures, but they were perfect representations of my family. After twenty-two years my mother realized that beautiful old 1977 in its ornate gold painted frame was the mistake, in fact it wasn't a picture of her family at all.
Copyright ©1999 Thomas M. Ledin. All Rights Reserved.
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