My son posted a photograph of us on Facebook. The picture was taken at a park, 22 years ago when he was 18 months old. I’m holding him, my lips frozen in a pucker against his cheek, while he smiles radiantly at the camera. The light illuminates our frames; the background is blurred in impressionistic beauty.
I’ve always hated that photo. I looked terrible in it.
I hired a children’s photographer to trail us as a family in the summer of 1994. It was my answer to the contrived photos all the rage among young families then. Moms, dads and kids dressed in matching khaki shorts and white shirts, jumping together in the tide or hand in hand on the beach at dusk — a photographer capturing the family from behind, in mid-stroll. Since we didn’t own khakis or jump together as a family, I yearned for something purer. I spent money we didn’t have on our private paparazzi and instructed her to take only candid shots throughout the day.
I had long, red, spiral-permed hair. It hung down my back and for the first month after the perm I had a luxurious mane of curly hair I always wanted. Yet after a month, I woke every morning with my thick Jane Seymour-like hair knotted in a Rastafarian’s nightmare. I pulled and brushed and tore my hair apart. I poured gallons of detangler through it. A week before our scheduled photo shoot, my hair reached a matted point of no return and I had to cut it off. For the first (and last) time in my life, I had short hair wedged in an angle just below my earlobes.
It was a reason not to leave the house.
My husband, Bruce, shamed me into keeping the photo shoot appointment. He noted my need for natural shots to capture our “real life,” even when our real life included a traumatic haircut. He reminded me that I believe, above all, in irony.
The photo day was a glorious one. I packed play clothes in a bag for the kids, threw on a tank top and denim shirt and combed my hair without looking in the mirror. I didn’t notice what Bruce was wearing. We went to the Baldwin Park, played on the swings, ran through the sprinklers and fed the ducks. All activities we did as a family most summer weekends. Our photographer, Brenda, followed behind, snapping snippets of a day in our life.
“Before we go,” Brenda suggested, “I’d like to take a few posed shots.” She eyed me with authority. “I think you will be sorry if we don’t.” We stood for a bunch of family shots. Bruce and I sat on a red wood picnic table with the kids in front of us. We laughed and called out the word “mocha” to capture a more natural smile.
As we were readying to go, my toddler son asked to be carried. It had been a long day for Alec, and he was whining and tired. So was I. I lifted him, plopped him on my hip and turned to join the group on their way out of the park. “Wait,” Brenda said. “Let me take a picture of you and your son. Lean in and pretend you are going to kiss him.” I had enough, but it was easier to oblige so I pressed my face against Alec’s cheek. She clicked.
I looked at the photo once when we received the pile of proofs and shoved it in a box of rejected pictures stored in the basement wall unit. Now, Alec has fished it out 22 years later and splashed it into cyberspace.
My reaction when I saw the post was one of practiced horror. Then I looked closer. I zoomed in to the beautiful light that shined on this mother and son. I gazed at my younger self, marveled at the protruding collar bones and taut neck I didn’t realize I had. I ran my finger over my thick red hair and admired my cheekbones. My breath caught when I saw Alec’s eyes in the photo. Loving. Bright. An indelible image of my little boy. It didn’t matter that my hair was short or the photograph was posed.
We look spectacular.
Debra Cohen Beckerman,