In praise of family pictures

(The irony of not illustrating this post is not lost on me. I'll give you a soundtrack, since you won't get a picture: imagine Sister Sledge's "We are Family," even though only my brother could say he's got all his sisters with him, and we've never been known to get up and sing, much less tell others to do so. What's important is that everyone can see we're together, when we walk on by.)

In my family, New Year's Day involves two rituals: taking the family picture and taking down the Christmas tree. For the second year in a row, this year we had no tree to un-decorate and remove from the house. In part, I attribute this dawning tradition to the one-two punch of my college's late semester's end and the Academic Mayhem; for about a decade, I've generally been the prime mover in my family's Christmas decorating, the one who picks up the tree or decorates it once it's in the house, and if I'm not home until Christmas eve (or later--last year, weather stranded me in Gambier until the 26th), then the tree doesn't happen. Two years ago, the tree migrated to my brother's house, where we decorated it using his ornament collection. (Suddenly, I realize just how far this set of stories could digress; for now, I'll just say that my brother and I each have a collection of Christmas ornaments that our mother built for us from the time we were babies, giving us at least one or two ornaments a year. This year's ornaments are, appropriately enough, a glass bird with a lusciously ethereal pink tail feather and a chef-fish replete with moustache. The first time I had my own Christmas tree, a Fraser fir I cut northwest of Ithaca in 2000, I learned I had enough ornaments to cover an eight-footer.) Two years before that, my brother and I acquired the family tree at Lowe's for $5, getting what the English would call good value for money. We pushed that thing in the trunk of my car and drove it right home, feeling mightily proud of ourselves.

Now, one of the reasons for having a lovely Christmas tree is to be able to visit all the ornaments on a regular basis. My favorites (from my own collection) are a Loch Ness monster I acquired in Inverness, Scotland, a decade ago, and a Wonder Woman brandishing the Lariat of Truth. I put these two together every time I put up a tree: Wonder Woman lassoing Nessie. But the Christmas tree's other raison d'etre is to be the backdrop for the family Christmas picture. We have these pictures dating back to 1979, my brother's first Christmas. A few years ago, my brother and I put them all together in an album for our parents, and I (an archivist at heart) learned the pleasures and puzzles of attempting to date photographs through the netherworld of the teenage years: I was startled to find how much 1990 looked like 1991 looked like 1992. Past pictures are scattered all around my parents' house: under the glass top on the desk in the kitchen is one from my second year in grad school; on the desk in one of my mother's quilting rooms are the ones from my first and fourth years there, as well as eighth grade; in most of our computers are two or three from the years since we've gone digital. I can date the pictures most reliably by my own hair: long one year, short the next, extremely short, longer again. And I can remember: that one, the goofy one (we always do a gag shot or two) where my father is getting ready to stick his finger up my nose, that's the one we took in my brother's new house, the year I had so many job interviews and saw the Pacific for the first time and came back from the Mayhem so exhaustedly keyed up that I barely knew what I was doing while I cooked us a new year's dinner, still wearing the clothes I'd flown home in from the west coast. In the early pictures, my brother and I hold the favored toy of the year (always with our initials on the contents tag, if we had matching ones, so that we wouldn't fight over whose was whose); in pictures from the years we had pets, we hold them (even though, in one case, we didn't have that new cat for long after Christmas, since she kept using the plants and the carpet as her litterbox and wouldn't eat). And for the past eleven years, we've struggled to hold down the mass of wiggly dog who's now dream-twitching and snuffling in her sleep alongside me on this bed from my childhood.

Last year, we opted to take the family picture outside, in front of a pine tree in the yard. That worked out pretty well, even though I sort of scared a neighborhood kid who came riding down the road on a chopper-style bicycle when I called a couple of Beastie Boys' lyrics from Check Your Head's "Professor Booty": "My chrome is shinin' just like an icicle; / I ride around town on my low-rider bicycle." I know I had a good reason for it.

This morning, because we had no tree once again this year, we had to decide what to use as our backdrop. I proposed using our front hall, with its open staircase, to impart some mad Brady Bunch style to the 2005 picture. We decided to pose in front of one of my mother's quilts instead. (I am still going to tell you about my mother's quilts.) My brother set us up, and we took the pictures.

My brother has been in charge of taking the family picture pretty much since he became a professional photographer (I know I've mentioned his skillz before; they deserve the z: they're that cool). He has carried on my father's legacy of catching tremendously silly and generally unflattering candids before the actual portrait-taking begins; both of them maximize the silliness of these shots by simply not announcing them ahead of time (this year, I bore the brunt; sometimes I share it with my mom). But he has also followed in my father's practice of capturing us all just as we are, each New Year's Day. The 27 pictures we now have are a startling record of our continuity and our change--our tininess, our growth, our fashions (or lack thereof), our braces, our glasses, our hair, our jewelry. Every year, we all look happy to be together--except the dog. Every year, the dog looks miserable; she hates cameras, and she hates being held on two laps for the duration of several photographs. This year she peed on my leg to let me know how little she appreciated an eleventh year of this nonsense.

My family is not big, and we are not big on rituals. I am reminded of these two facts each year when we take the family picture on New Year's: we make this ritual anew in our own four-person-and-one-dog way, year by year, and I cherish our simplicity.