Sunday, August 23, 2009

Looking Pretty in Pictures

"I think my computer has a crush on me," I tell my youngest sister.


"Yeah," I drawl, "every time I change my blog picture, my computer's all -- " I make bedroom eyes, drop my voice an octave, "Fetching profile photo . . . '"

My sister wrinkles her brow.  Then bursts out laughing.

I smirk, "All I can say is, Why, thank you."

Now she's offended, "My computer only says 'UPLOADING PHOTOS' . . .  Who wants to have a picture that has to be uploaded?"

Well, neither of us -- that's certain.

Is it like this in other families? Summer, for us, is the season of photography. And as essential to our reunitings as laughter and watermelon. We don't feel we entirely exist, nor that we've been where we've been, unless we have pictures to prove it. And managing to look good in those pictures, well, it feels like an obligation we owe -- like we're failing to live up to the Family Tradition when we don't.

It doesn't help that we come from a line of highly photographable women. Like our mother --

Her father -- our grandfather -- was an avid photographer. And as a scabby-kneed, straggly-haired four-eyes I loved to pore over the album full of pictures of his sisters, his daughters, his wife, all these beautiful women who lived where it was always summer.  

Someday even I . . .

Mom always insisted comfortingly that she too went through an awkward stage -- here it is in case you don't recognize it:

Right. An awkwardness that so obviously has more to do with funky eyewear than the girl herself. Too obvious that this is just the dramatic setup right before she's about to toss her glasses and run her fingers through her hair -- and voilá! 

Which is precisely the way it played out --

And there they are -- our grandmother, our mother -- so photographable. And it's summertime. And that funny little kid with no hair, no teeth, laughable nose, and eyes set too close together?

That's me.

Oh, the burden of having to see oneself. Surely, we were never meant to be so aware of what we look like.

Our children are right to resent it.

Angelic, you say?  Let me interpret -- this is: "You better be telling the truth," in response to "Come on, just one more picture. Then you can go. Come on, put your heads together so we have a nice picture."

Poor YoungSon and his cousin who thought they were just having some fun when they ran towards the waiting wagon in old Nauvoo and clambered up onto its wooden seat. They missed the signs screaming Photo Op!

They should have known.

What did ensue:

"Here, give us a big smile."

"Now, look at me."

"Okay, over here, just one more."

"Come on, we want to have a nice picture of you being here with your cousin."

Is it any wonder they begin to grimace . . .

(do you have to be told that it's his mother behind this camera?)

. . . and mug?

(and her mother behind the other?)

They are turning their faces already into masks.

Not like my baby niece, who squints, not out of wariness, not worrying how she's smiling, but because the sun is shining in her eyes.

Whose eyes light up purely - not so she'll take a good picture - but because she sees someone she knows.

And is curious.

I've been doing what I can in favor of the unrevised, unrehearsed image . . .

. . . namely, avoiding being on the trouble-side of a camera. I bring my own camera, I stay in the background, I'm the one who stalks everyone else. "I hate having my picture taken," I whimper when cornered. "Maybe after I lose this weight then . . . "

But this last visit, my sister told me, soberly and sweetly persuasive, something her friend read to her from a camera manual, something to the tune of:
You may encounter subjects unwilling to be photographed. You might remind them -- they're looking better now than they will in ten years. Might as well smile!
Though she's one to talk, my sister. If I were to post, say, this picture

she would find something bad to say about it. Usually she complains that she looks like she has gas when she smiles in photographs. If that's what it is, I say, bring on the raffinose.

Or she'll point out her uneven teeth. "The flaw that perfects," I tell her. "I love your teeth. They give you a slightly elfish air."

"When I bite into cheese," she harumphs, "I always leave this distinctive crooked bite-mark. It's very obvious."

And I guess she has a point there - it could put a real cramp on grocery trips if every time you took a gnaw out of a block of cheese the store detective was able to trace the marks immediately back to you.

"At least you don't show your gums like they're badly fit dentures," I comfort her . . .

". . . At least your teeth aren't wearing down crookedly where you grind them in your sleep."

She rolls her eyes. As she does when I moan over the morose and doomsaying nose I inherited from our grandfather - it's a nose that despite all my efforts at happy thoughts, keeps saying "Things aren't as bad as they could be - just wait."

"And my eyes look maniacal," I say.

"Whatever," she says.

We both know this is a kind of vanity, to invest this much uncomfortable thought into what we look like in pictures. I wish she would see the delicacy of brow and chin, the lovely arching eyebrows that I see - the dearness of a face I love - rather than, "Look how crooked my part is."

Though it is certain I have more to get over than she does.

"People are going to think I'm your mother, you realize," I say as we get ready in the same mirror, heading out for the day together.

"No, they won't," my sister says. "Not even."

"Watch." And of course I'm right. The first woman nods at me, while my sister plays toss with her daughter and my son, while I rock the stroller and babble at my new niece. The woman leans over, coos conspiratorially, "Isn't it wonderful to be with your little grandbaby?"

I could just smile and nod. But I say, "Niece." Which embarrasses the pleasant lady, who hums and haws and hurries away.

The next woman asks YoungSon if he's the baby's older brother, or - er? - her uncle?

Honestly. Do I look that old?

I do. The lank and graying hair, the tired eyes, the extra flesh -- I'm letting down the Women of the Family -- I'll never look like my grandpa's sisters

who looked like this even when I knew them, fine-featured slender women who knew how to dress so that the camera loved them.

Though I'm not sure I'm not doing as well as could be expected with the material I was given. I did indeed start out slender, but the fashion sense . . .

. . . never great,  has developed in only the most rudimentary sense. And the nose -- well, I've wondered sometimes if the doctor didn't grab me by the nose when I was being born -- pulling my eyes too close together and my upper lip too short.

And though I wish (vainly and without any real hope) I could be as good as my other grandma -- as quick to laugh and to love and to put her arms around the lonely and the lost -- do I want to be as camera shy? This grandma from the other side was always running away from cameras, hiding behind other people. I hardly have any pictures of her now.

So maybe instead of (okay, at least after) saying, "Ack, that pessimistic nose! The rolls of flesh! That thinning hair!"  I could begin to read these photos as:

"Look, we were here. Together."

"And weren't we happy!"


Mrs. Organic said...

You're right. I'm trying not to be so scarce in photos so my children won't have to wonder when they grow up if I was really there. Your photos are lovely!

P.S. Grandpa's pretty sisters got their color out of bottle, even if they said otherwise. It was the all the rage.

Neighbor Jane Payne said...

Oh, oh, I do love this post. I love the humor, the honesty, the "fine-featured slender women who knew how to dress so that the camera loved them" . . . I loved it all.

You must not remember what I said when I last saw you (and didn't immediately recognize you), "Who is that regal woman with such dignity and poise standing there?" Truly, you are a fine picture of femininity. I thought it funny what imperfections you have found in yourself and see it kind of like you said your sister only sees the crooked part in her hair.

The tribute you gave to your sister is wonderful, what a gift.

Again, what an enlightening post.

Ande Payne said...

I LOVED this post! (I am Neighbor Jane's daughter, Ande, by the way. She just posted a pretty hanious picture of me this morning on her blog, so this rang true.) I loved looking at all of the beautiful women, flaws and all, and seeing what great pictures they make. And what you had to say about them all! It was just as beautiful as all those pictures of pure femininity. And THAT was one great wrap up. I'm a sucker for great closing lines, and yours was truly great. Thanks for the great read!

Emma J said...

Mrs O - I need to track down that bottle they got it out of!

Jane, Ande - hugs and kisses back to both of you!

Lisa B. said...

I join the chorus of those who loved this post. I got tears in my eyes at your conclusion, because that's it, isn't it? we shouldn't waste time being so anxious because it diminishes the moments we're in--

My daughter-in-law was so excited to show me the picture of me with my beautiful, beautiful son on their wedding day--and I did look good! but all I could see in that picture was a roll of waist fat and that's what I said--it disappointed her, and I regretted it, because what that picture was to her was a beautiful snap of her beloved with his beloved mom. "Here we all are together--and aren't we happy!" That's exactly right.

Emma J said...

thanks, Lisa B. I think that is it - how NOT to diminish the moments - and if I could just keep true to that . . .

Melissa said...

Oh my, fail to check your blog for one short (extraordinarily short, for some reason) week, and look what I miss! I love the pictures we each took of the kids, how they goof around just when their mom is the photographer. And you are right, I could find about a dozen things wrong with the pictures you posted of me (vanity!), but as you so clearly prosed, I am marvellously happy in those pictures, and the memory of them cast sunshine over me still, so I will leave it at that. To be beloved and dear to you is worth more than straight teeth or unfrizzy hair. Thank you for the tribute, MaryJan. Your little sister loves you.

Related Posts