May 17, 2007


The collection of pictures from our Ireland trip could be called “Joe takes the kids to Ireland.” The book of pictures from our vacation in Chile could be entitled “A father and his toddler visit South America.” The smattering of photos from the Memorial Day Parade in upstate New York is, basically, “Joe and the kids and his wife’s sister and her kids watch the fire engines go by.” Our photo albums also contain the following sequences: “Joe and the kids wear orange shirts in a pumpkin patch,” “Amos rides his first horse while Daddy looks on lovingly,” “Large family sans Mommy gathers around Thanksgiving feast,” and of course “Everyone who was at Etta’s first birthday party--except for her mom, who created the invitations, made the cupcakes, planned the picnic, and handled everything including the camera.”

Evidence of Joe’s love for the kids is all over these pictures. There he is spotting Amos on the monkey bars--looking up at him intently, focusing only on his dangling son, hands poised to catch him. It’s a stunning and emotional shot. Here’s a rear view of him, then a side view, then a laughing, twisting picture of Joe swinging Etta around in a circle. You can flip through the small stack of photos and get a peek at the movement, and the joy the two of them shared.

I take beautiful pictures. I am never in them. I am who they are looking at, when the pictures are of smiling full-on faces. I am the one sneaking up on them, when the pictures are candids. I am the one inches away from them, when the pictures are such jam-up close-ups that their sticky faces and personalities explode out of the white borders.

I get credit, I get praise, and I get satisfaction. What I don’t get is ME in any of the pictures.

No matter what happens to my husband, no matter what kinds of people my kids turn out to be, this record of their shared experiences will always be there. And even though they will know, if they pause to think of it, that I was in all of those places too, physical evidence of my involvement just isn’t there. Generations from now, no one will care. I cherish black and white photos of my dark-haired grandmother leaning back sassily on a beach blanket. I study her in them, I don’t think much about my gangly grandfather behind the camera.

“I’m never in enough pictures,” I say to my husband sheepishly. But I know not to say this when the camera is around--since it only initiates an immediate (one-time only) flurry of shots that doesn’t fill the general void in our albums.

“The kids aren’t going to have any sense of what I looked like when they were young. If something happens to me, they won’t be able to thumb through old albums trying to get an idea of me.”

That’s the sort of thing I say.

Here’s how and why it doesn’t work.

Joe can’t ever just take my picture. No one can for that matter. If permission is asked of me, or if notice of an impending shot is given, I often turn it down politely (just like a sales clerk turning down a tip that she desperately wants to keep). If the would-be photographer isn’t insanely insistent--”no, c’mon, please let me take your picture, you look fabulous, please,”--the picture doesn’t happen.

Plus, if I know a picture is being taken of me, I feel obliged to look at the camera and smile. I don’t know how to be the unsuspecting subject. I haven’t had enough practice. I do have a good full-on beam and the picture always turns out to be ok--in a cookie-cutter type of way. It’s the same exact face pulled into the same exact grin every time. Just cut-and-paste and here I am holding hands with Buzz Lightyear at Halloween, here I am at the shooting gallery in the Wild West, here I am in the rug shop in the Andes.

It’s hard to get a genuine candid of me since, as the photographer, I’m always aware of the camera’s whereabouts, and of the camera-readiness of any given moment. No one can take a picture of me that I don’t know is being taken. And that’s the shot I want.

One friend was finally able to put it into words for me, in a way that I feel somewhat comfortable admitting. “You want the picture of Jackie Kennedy and John Jr, the one where he’s playing with her pearls.” Bingo.

I want the impossible. I want someone to capture the real smile I give my kids, or the puzzled look they inspire, or the full on belly-laugh, or the intense tickling session. I’ve tried to act natural in front of a self-timer, but the real stuff just doesn’t come. I end up acting like some tv mom, instead of just being captured being the mom that I am.

Sometimes, my friends and I play the ‘what would you do if you won a million dollars’ game. Over the years my answers have hovered in the ‘buy a private island’ and ‘blow it all on fun creams and lotions’ realm. Well, I’ve got a new wish these days. I’d forgo all of the fancy frills, and pay someone to sneak around in the bushes and document some of my time with my kids. Just don’t tell me you’re coming, and slip the memory stick in my mailbox at the end of every month.


Chloe said...

Maybe that is why the movie "Stepmother" makes me cry every time.
I just took a look at my photo albums and guess what? I'm not there, either!

Anonymous said...

Um, set the timer and hop in the picture. Done.