A Kodak MomentIn many people's homes, places of honor are saved for family pictures. The high school graduation head shot. Perhaps, a serious young man dressed in a military uniform, posed rigidly in front of a flag. Some homes have cute babies. Others, cheap group shots from Olan Mills. Mom, Dad, the kids - family as smiling and loving clan - captured by the blink of a mechanical eye and held together by chemicals and paper, no matter how fractious they were in real life.
I suppose it's telling we didn't have those sorts of pictures at our house.
However, amongst the accumulated crap of a lifetime I do have one family picture. It's a small, worn, black and white snapshot of my mother, sister, and me. It's a bright day and in the background you can see the still-rising houses of the local Levittown-style development. There are only spare patches of grass where eventually a lawn would sprout. There's a new Ford Galaxy 500 in the driveway, horizontal fins glinting in the sun. And it's Sunday. I can tell because my mother and sister wear frilly, but demure frocks and white gloves with hats. I'm dressed as a junior-sized version of the Man in the Gray Suit, tiny tie askew, mugging for the camera with a toothless grin and a scrunched face. The camera tilted slightly when the shutter was pushed, making us all look ready to slide to the left, revealing our tenuous grasp of familial gravity.
Whenever I'm searching the darkest recesses of the family archive, I run across the photo and I always stop for a moment to stare. I'm not sure why. Its every feature - from my slicked-back hair to the faint shadow of my Dad as he takes the picture - is etched in my memory. Sometimes the image just pops randomly into my head or comes to me in an uneasy dream - not quite a nightmare, but not a pleasant, slumbering float through the past either.
When it does, I'm always drawn to the eyes.
My mother anchors the left side of the family. She smiles prettily, but vacantly. Her eyes wrinkle in the sun, but they are almost devoid of emotion. For me, they are uneasy eyes. I know now they both hide and project the schizophrenia that will emerge with a full-blown fury in a few more years. But, she's still mom in this picture, not the confused person who will talk to the shadows that she'll eventually become.
My sister anchors the right. She wears the pained expression of a teenager condemned to stand on the lawn - in public - having her picture taken with the family. I'm sure the next time she snuck out for a smoke with her friends, she told them just how incredibly lame and boring the whole affair had been. Her eyes are firey and very defiant. Rather than reflect her own troubled lifetime to come, they show only an angry intensity. She clearly held something inside that was struggling to free itself and her eyes showed the struggle. Not too far into the future, her eyes would turn old, worn out from too many bad marriages, mounting debts, failed classes, bad jobs, and incarcerated children of her own. Her own bouts of schizophrenia would come too, eventually turning her into a spacy welfare queen, estranged from the family and always on the beg for money or food, or meds, or cigarettes.
And I'm in the middle, a familiar I will come to know well.
My eyes are just the eyes of a six year old. They twinkle with energy. My smile is toothless, though genuine, nothing like Grinch-curled lips I smile with today. I am the animation of the shot, posed between the two women who would mold my life so completely. I am alive in stark contrast to the beginnings of their lengthy, life-long deaths.
I even vaguely remember the day. Mom was going to make fried chicken and there would be a fresh-baked apple pie for dessert. I would play in the backyard after Sunday dinner. It would be my favorite game - rolling over and over, across the width of the yard and then quickly standing up and looking into the sky. My head would spin and the clouds would blur, right across the open blue sky. In between rolls, I'd stroke my dog's head and dream of life as a grown up.
Of course, I have other pictures too. A high school graduation head shot. I'm dressed in a white dinner jacket with black bow tie. I have long sideburns and fashionably longish hair. My eyes in that picture are vacant and there is no smile. In fact, my lips are visibly chapped and belay the pain of that simple, incompetent smile.
And there are other pictures too. In each one I change a bit. My hair becomes longer or shorter as the fashion of the day dictates. Eventually it begins to recede from the small, back-of-the head patch at my wedding, to the long forehead on my security badge from work. My chins and belly grow as youth flits away and wrinkles form at the corners of my eyes.
But, the eyes never change. They're always a bit hard, no matter how much I try to turn up the wattage. The twinkle never returns. They no longer look up at spinning clouds in a brilliant blue sky. They are adult eyes. Eyes that have seen too much. Old eyes, magnified by my glasses. Eyes that have become trained not to twinkle or reflect anything from inside.
When I compare my eyes in that old picture to the ones I have now, I see the clear difference between eyes that are alive and eyes that are living.
I'm clearly not a kid anymore.
Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Wednesday, December 20, 2006