Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Last Family Portrait

The warm sun licked my skin as I sat at the patio table scanning through the photographs that had been most recently uploaded onto our family Shutterfly page while sipping an ice cold can of Diet Coke. I’d spent an evening the week before with my older brother Frank helping him to add his pictures from our Mom’s funeral and from a recent golf tournament that we had played in as a family. I also looked again at the pictures my sister Deb had added a couple of weeks ago from our childhood.

There are literally hundreds of pictures that grace our “Den of Lyons” webpage, and while we’ve only had it for a little more than a year, as I peruse the photos I can see the changes that can take place even in a couple of handfuls of months. That’s one of the wonderful things that pictures provide for us…an opportunity to look at things as they were at a particular moment in time. As I took my time under the warm July sun to look at some of our family photos there, two struck me more than any of the others.

The first one had been taken in 1964-65 at the dairy farm in North Idaho where we grew up. I hadn’t seen it for many years until Deb had given me a copy as part of a box of old family photos at Christmas this year. While we all look so pathetically poor in the picture, it is still one of my favorites. The picture shows our family as we were. Four children ages 7 through 13 and mom and dad…and our wiener dog, Clementine.

The picture reveals so much about us I think. Geoff, the youngest with is mischievous grin. Just looking at his face makes you wonder what he just did that he didn’t get caught for…yet. It seems he always did eventually. The torn knees in his jeans and the rolled up legs most likely a hand-me-down. His shirt, unbuttoned half-way down is one that I had probably worn the year before. His hands hanging at his sides, not willing to be held still in a folded gesture.

Frank, the oldest son standing with his hands neatly folding in front, standing tall with his shoulders back…his legs straight. Perhaps an indicator of his future as a doctor in the army. Or maybe just being careful to stand tall as he had undoubtedly been told to do countless times by mom and dad. His shirt buttoned to the top…stained with a variety of “who-knows-what”? His jeans also reveal tears that have yet to be sewn up. A tentative smile reveals a sense of peace and confidence.

Located between my brothers, I notice that I’m standing a little behind them…my body turned slightly askew. Mom is only touching one of us in the picture…me. Are her hands placed there protectively…or for some other reason, I’ll never know. My smile is one of shyness, not really sure what to think of this backyard family photo shoot by the local newspaper. Unlike my brothers, my jeans appear intact and “hole-free” revealing my aversion to getting too rough or dirty, even as a young boy.

Deb stands in the back row, a beautiful smile gracing her face. The smile I’m sure part of the reflection of her status in the “adult” row, standing beside mom. The toes of her bare feet scrunch into the quack grass that we called a lawn…her eyes squinting slightly from a source of sunshine not apparent in the old black and white photo.

Standing in the center is mom in a sleeveless plaid dress, not looking at the camera…apparently trying to avoid eye contact with the photographer. Or perhaps in her mind she believes if she doesn’t acknowledge the camera, it might mean that she really isn’t in this place…that perhaps this life that she is living is only a dream. Her eyes reveal a depth of fatigue that can’t be described. Or is it disdain? Clearly, she doesn’t look happy.

Beside her is dad, standing in his uniform of the day…the white pants and short-sleeved shirt that identify him as the “milkman”. The ever-present pipe protruding from his lip…although this one had a straight stem rather than the bent style that he usually smoked. In his arms sits Clementine, herself a little apprehensive about all that is going on. Ironically, dad too avoids the camera with his eyes and his expression masks any feelings that he may have. Are they pride in what he has accomplished on this dairy or is it covering the dreams that he still holds that are unfulfilled?

Whatever this family portrait reveals, it is what our family was nearly four and half decades ago.

The second photo is actually our “last” family portrait. We never had a formal portrait taken of our family growing up. Only the occasional snapshot that an aunt or uncle may have taken when the six of us were together. Maybe it was because it was dad who usually had a camera and his nature wasn’t to ask for help…even a passing stranger to take a picture of his family all together. Or perhaps because there were very few times that seemed to be worthy of capturing on film as a reminder of where we were, or perhaps of who we were. And certainly, it would have been a cold day in hell before dad would have paid money to have one taken professionally.

But on a cool, misty June day in Newport, Washington we all gathered for one last day together. Forty-five years after that black and white picture in the backyard was taken, a new image was captured. We had come to celebrate and remember the lives of our parents, and to bury their remains together.

Ironically, just as in the photo from our childhood, the four of us kids are all facing the camera and smiling. Deb’s eyes are twinkling as they often to when she reveals her beautiful smile. Frank stands beside her, holding her in a loving and protective grasp. A fedora covering his graying hair. On the opposite side, Geoff stands with his arm around me, his other hand still hanging and his mischievous smile bracketed by his goatee. Slightly behind, my balding head in the shadows, I smile as I feel my hand against Geoff’s back…feeling his presence close beside me.

In this photo, mom and dad don’t have an opportunity to face the camera. But they are there. Mom in a beautiful black, floral urn…a reminder of the beauty of her youth. And dad in a plain, bronze box…in a similar way a reminder of the simplicity of his way of life. We can’t see what expressions they might have shown the camera on this day, but I’m certain that it would be one of pride and joy and a sense of completion. Their family had gathered one last time, caught on film for all eternity.

Black & white photo- Unknown

Color photo by Clare Lyons

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