Every December, when our friends and relatives send us family portrait Christmas photos on holiday greeting cards, my children pass them around as a form of good cheer, but also a bill of indictment. The pictures are a reminder that another yuletide has come without our family making its own formal portrait.
The usual distractions of life with two careers and two teenagers conspire against us. And by the time another Thanksgiving brings the idea of Christmas photos to mind, we figure the schedule’s too tight to make a picture and mail it out before Dec. 25. Our good intentions get postponed another year.
“Next year, I go to college,” our 17-year-old daughter, Eve, told me a few weeks ago. “It’s my last Christmas living at home. Are we ever going to get our portrait made?”
Chastened, I asked my friend John, a professional photographer, if we could press him into service. And my wife and I decided our portrait didn’t really need a holiday theme; the real goal was to create a lasting memento, even if the picture never landed on a Christmas card.
What I tried to remember – and what I so often forget as a father – is that the quest for perfection in parenting can paralyze good plans. Even so, we tried hard to make our Sunday portrait day seem special. My wife and I scouted out locations at a local park. I made sure that my best white shirt was dry cleaned, ironed, starched, and waiting on its hanger in the bedroom closet. We insisted that Eve and our 13-year-old son, Will, go to bed early on the night before The Big Shoot so that they wouldn’t be grumpy in front of the camera.
But here’s what happened on picture day:
I unshrouded my shirt from its plastic bag and discovered an ink blot, as vivid as a bloodstain, across the front. Meanwhile, slipping an arm into her sweater, my wife noticed that Foster, our terrier, had used it as a blanket, leaving a fine layer of his hair across the sleeves and shoulders.
We sorted out our wardrobe emergencies and jumped in the car, where I glanced through the rearview to spot Will’s hair, which seemed as if it had just emerged from a wind tunnel. Eve looked fashion-model super, but like most cover girls, she had fashionably underdressed, guaranteeing that she would shiver through our photo session on a brisk December morning.
There was also the problem of the weather, which was, ironically enough, too gorgeous. The bright sun proved less than ideal for outdoor photography, which tends to work best when the sky’s a bit overcast.
But John soldiered on, expertly directing us through our paces. First, he posed Eve and Will by themselves while my wife and I stood nearby as supportive bystanders. In a few moments, we began to look at our children as John did – as striking works of art.
I realized, standing behind John as his shutter clicked away, that I although I see my kids every day, I hadn’t really looked at them in a long time. “We made two beautiful children,” I told my wife, Catherine. “Things didn’t have to turn out so well.”
Eventually Catherine and I joined Eve and Will for group shots, with John suggesting that we hold hands, or sit closely, or stand and lock arms, shoulder to shoulder. John was asking us to play the part of a close family. The more we acted like a family enjoying each other's company, the more we actually enjoyed each other’s company.
My family’s time in front of the camera this yuletide was the best gift I’ll get this year. Whether the picture ever ends up on a greeting card is still anybody’s guess.