The family photo

Another entry inspired by Nell’s IMT workshop.

We sit at the dinner table, the three boys on one side, the three girls on the other, pater at the head and mater at the foot. We sit up straight to avoid the shame of having a yardstick put down the back of our shirts. We keep our elbows off the table lest we receive a sharp jab with a fork.

Shannon trots happily around the table. A Shetland Sheepdog, she is convinced we are her flock. Her nails click-click-click on the floor as she goes around and around. To break the monotony, one of us will quickly reach down and shove a hand in front of her muzzle as she comes around. She pauses a moment, puzzled, then turns and immediately resumes her click-click-click in the opposite direction.

The table is long and heavy. The walls are patterned with huge blue flowers. The tablecloth is noisy and patterned with blue. Macramé plant holders hang from the ceiling. The polished china cabinet, almost the length of the table, holds the special spot where today’s mail is deposited, next to the chair where pater sets his briefcase. 

Everything in its place.

Above it all presides the family photo. It is renewed every year like a promise to ourselves. We are dressed in our polyester best—the boys with wide collars and loud stripes, the girls in mater’s fine home-stitched double-knit hand-me-downs. Boys, girls, mater, pater. Positioned against the Olan Mills mottled blue-grey background, Sears smiles on our faces. A happy family.

One year I break tradition and appear with a Han Solo half-smile on my face, looking slightly deranged. But in the next year, and the next and the next, the old smile is firmly fixed in place. 

The photo is our idol, our talisman. It protects us against consequences. Consequences of arguments that turn into fights that turn into something twisted and toxic. Consequences of threatened abuse, of terror, of Terrible Secrets that we all ignore. Our mantras give the talisman power: “Well, at least he doesn’t beat me.” “At least none of our kids are on drugs.” “At least no one’s divorced in our family.” Like blood sacrifices to a thirsty god, we recite the “At Least” prayer to give the talisman power. Power to protect us against consequences.

I’m fourteen and the photo is nagging me. Someone’s missing from the family photo. I count the inhabitants of the frame. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. I must be wrong. I count again. Someone is missing. I can’t figure out who it is. Someone is missing—and I suddenly realize that someone is me.

No matter how many times I count the members of the happy family, I cannot find myself in the photo.

At least.

There are lesser photos, of course, like saints that intercede between us and the talisman god. Every festive occasion has candid and posed portraits. But these images allow some cracks to show: sullen teenage faces, cotton blouses with long sleeves, eyes filled with steely boredom. We call these “bad pictures” but we hold onto them nonetheless.

We no longer take family photos. Of course, there are the holiday pictures of grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but there is no photo of the boys, the girls, mater, and pater. That talisman broke long ago. I can no longer recall if it shattered in one devastating blow or crumbled through neglect. I suspect it broke into pieces each time I spoke The Truth.

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