The Family PortraitThomas Matthew Ledin1999Christmas day 1977 my family posed for a picture taken by Mr. Bellows, our next-door neighbor at the time. Through the years that photo has become the benchmark for all family portraits taken of my family, and one has yet to equal its magnificence. Although unsaid, it is clear to everyone that knows her, the family portrait of 1977 is my mother’s most valued possession.In that picture my family is vastly different than it is today. Those faces of the past are only vaguely familiar to me. Frozen between the four sides of a frame, we’re all sitting up amazingly straight, and our smiles are so perfect they almost look drawn on. My dad’s is a knowing, almost mournful smile, as if a ghost were whispering secrets in his ear. This photo is entirely beautiful in its simplicity, and truly impressive in its rarity.I admit that a good family photo may not 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. The picture hangs in an elaborate gold frame, as large as life, opposite the front door in my mother’s house. It is there as a trophy for all to see. “My perfect little family,” She says every time anyone follows her in the front door.I can recall with more than a little guilt the years my mother tried to corral us all into a neat little two-rowed formation for a photo, and the grief we would give her. We never made it easy, whether it was bunny ears behind Julie’s head, or Justin pinching the incredibly sensitive area on the back of my arm, or my dad’s favorite, passing gas a few seconds 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.The slump wasn’t always our fault. In 1991 we thought for sure we had finally broken the curse. It was the day before my sister’s wedding, and my mom had arranged to have the wedding photographer come to the rehearsal dinner to make her valiant yearly attempt to get another decent family photo. We had two additions to the family, my brother’s wife who he had married a year before, and my sister’s soon to be husband. We were all aware that these two new variables increased the difficulty level considerably, but we were prepared. The photographer posed us like we were modeling for the cover of Perfect Family Monthly, and we all behaved ourselves. My Aunt Lucy stood next to the photographer and snapped a few pictures of her own with her Polaroid camera. When we finished our photo shoot we gathered around Lucy’s magically appearing instant pictures. The Poloroids came out terribly blurry, but all of our faces could be made out, and nobody was doing anything stupid. My mother was so happy she almost cried. She knew that in a few weeks we would have the professional’s proofs, and she would then be able to hang another perfect family portrait opposite the front door near the stairs.I was at the house the day the proofs came, and the pictures of the wedding were beautiful, but the package did not include any pictures from the rehearsal. During the phone call with the photographer, my poor mom burst into tears and hung up. "He lost the negatives,” she said flatly as she walked out of 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 has been eight years since the rehearsal dinner, and a second decent portrait has not been taken. We have had plenty of opportunities, my wedding, Dad’s retirement party, and eight Christmases, but she has yet to hang another photo. During those eight years five grandkids have entered the family, and the difficulty of getting the perfect picture has increased exponentially. I’m positive that any one of the family events of the past eight years would have yielded another picture worthy of hanging had we known the photo opportunities with Dad were numbered. My mom had almost completely given up on her quest and I was not the champion of her cause that I had hoped to be.So there we were, the entire family together twenty-two years after the perfect portrait was taken, but 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 stared at the portrait, and he asked, “Who are they Daddy?” I couldn’t answer him, I recognized no one.Later that day as the family milled around my father’s casket eating various finger foods, I couldn’t help but think about the pictures my mother never got, they were now pictures she would never get. Mom didn’t make much of an appearance the day of the wake. She came downstairs for a bit, mainly to thank everyone for coming, but quickly retreated to the privacy of her grief.My brother, sister and I went to the house the day after the funeral, before making the various trips to the airport. As we opened the front door we noticed immediately that the perfect family portrait of 1977 was gone, and in its place was a photo from 1995. It was quite possibly 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 mom’s face is twisted into the biggest smile I have ever seen her wear, she looks beautiful.When we were finally able to tear ourselves away from 1977’s replacement, we saw that every wall was now home to at least one of our years worth of terrible family pictures. Next to the stairs was 1981 where my brother was hung over and looked like he was on the verge of being ill, and my sister, filled with teenage angst was refusing to look at the camera. Over 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. My brother, sister and I wandered around the house for twenty minutes without saying a word, looking at all the 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 a perfect representation 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.
A short story I wrote a decade ago. This story won a couple awards, and was published in two different Short Story/Writing textbooks.
I still get a few emails a year from teachers asking permission to use it in class to teach short story writing. I’m sure there’s a lot wrong with it, but it was well-received, and I’m not a writer, so shut-up.