The photos are stacked in crisscrossing patterns, each short pile representing the roll of film taken and developed 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago -- edges curling and growing crisp. The photos, rarely moved, spoon in darkness, their slick fronts sticking to the matte backs of the photos above.
A few samples drawn from the pile hang on our refrigerator beneath magnets, including the first group portrait I ever took of the four children.
We are at my mother's house. I take the twin babies, barely 2 months old, and lay them out on one of my mother's hand-sewn quilts, crown to crown. The tops of their heads are touching, their bodies forming a straight line, their soft cotton gowns pulled down over their toes. Their older sister, 10 years old at the time, spreads her golden curls and lays face-up to their right, smiling like a movie star. To the left of the babies, also facing upward, is their 2-year-old brother, dark and handsome. It is hardest for him to remain still as I stand in a chair and hover above them, leaning over to get a direct angle on the star of faces above the star-patterned quilt.
I take probably 10 shots and miraculously, in one, everyone's eyes are open, everyone is facing directly upward, no one is crying, no fingers raised to noses, no fists stuffed in mouths.
It is a wonderful photo, but like most family photographs, it says nothing about our lives at that time. It is crafted and composed, carefully presenting clean faces to the world, proof of little more than the physical existence of these four children at that time, in that place. It says nothing about the colds and stuffy noses, the crowded house, the adolescence in bloom, the furnace that sometimes doesn't work, the mountains of laundry, the bedtime stories, the busy father, the exhausted mother. It says, "Here we are, Christmas of 1986."
Going through papers and trying to reorganize my life during the first week of the new year, I come across an envelope of pictures dated November 1973. Four women stand in the foreground, dressed in somber polyesters, one of them sporting the only hint of color, a bright red handbag. They all have thick, plentiful hair, cut short, teased and styled. They look happy to be together.
Behind them, five men in suits and ties. Their heads of slicked-back hair are flecked with varying degrees of gray.
Everyone looks close in age, and in fact, their ages span less than 20 years. They are my mother and her sisters and brothers, gathered for their father's funeral.
Someone, but not one of them, has carefully documented their presence in Clarksville, Tenn., on this winter's day, the last time they all will be together. The faces carry few clues of the cancer, the brain tumor, the dementia, the maladies of old age that will take all but three of them in the ensuing 23 years. Looking at the photo, I realize that the youngest among them is just about the age that I am now.
On Christmas Day, I force my three sons to sit for a quick group portrait. The year before, I forced them to do the same thing with their sister, but this year she is too busy to come home. They are kind and tolerant of my many efforts to get a good shot. Finally, miraculously, I get a shot in which everyone's eyes are open, no one's face is contorted. That's the one, I say. I'll print it and send it out to family, proof that they are all here, happy and healthy.
Another envelope among my papers: Inside is a black-and-white group portrait with ruffled edges -- my family's 1959 Christmas card. I am 5 years old, sitting choo-choo train style, sandwiched between my older and younger sisters, our brother's crewcut head rising high above ours from behind.
It tells me the story of thousands of hours of play, of war cries and baby-doll coos, of rough grass beneath bare feet and baseball games in red clay dirt. When my children find it years from now, tucked away in the laundry basket, it will tell them that I was there in that place and time, nothing more.
And that's enough.
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