The Family Picture
by Charlene Paul
Before marriage and children, I had my life perfectly planned. I would graduate from college, teach high school English, and marry the man of my dreams. We would have four well-behaved children, a neat and tidy home, and dinner would be served at six each evening. Laughter, jokes, board games, and popcorn would be part of our weekly family nights. Sunday clothes would be neatly pressed, and socks would always match. I would be a modern-day Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.
And then I met the man of my dreams—in the neighbor’s backyard. We fell in love, got married, and welcomed four sons and two daughters into our family. Our home was not perpetually organized, and sometimes dinner was late. Our weekly family nights frequently seemed to be planned by Lucifer himself, and board games rarely elicited laughter and jokes, except the ones aimed at those who were losing. Sunday rumple was our Sabbath day fashion statement, and mismatched socks beat no socks at all. So much for Mary Poppins.
But gazing at our family pictures, a person might jump to the conclusion that the Paul family was, indeed, practically perfect in every way. Clean shirts, combed hair, and toothy grins adorn our living room walls, but a closer look shines a different light on our normal, picture-perfect family.
Take our first family picture together. Okay, that one went pretty well. No major upsets, no minor mishaps. But the family picture when our third son was only a few weeks old threatened to send the photographer to the funny farm. He gave his best effort to get the baby to open his eyes, but that precious bundle was fast asleep, and not even true love’s kiss could coax him awake. Today it is one of our favorites.
And then there is the picture with our scowling fourth son. At two years old, he was not happy with his cute little blue bow tie. Actually, he was not all that keen on the entire outfit of blue linen lederhosen shorts and Little Lord Fauntleroy knee socks. We lovingly refer to that one as our Grumpy Ben picture.
One year, I sewed western shirts for my husband and our four boys, and cute matching outfits for our little girls. I wore a coordinating blouse and denim skirt. I was so proud. My husband confessed a few years ago, though, that he and the older boys were less than enthused. He warned them to smile and act like they loved their shirts. I was a little devastated.
Another year, everyone received matching warm-up suits for Christmas—perfect for a family picture. The boys were older and much more boisterous about a family picture on location in the desert in June. (We put it off for six months so the little girls could grow into their warm-ups.) But we persevered. We asked the photographer to photograph each child separately, and when we got those shots back, we realized our oldest daughter’s hair was the same color as the tumbleweed behind her. It gave her that I-stuck-my-finger-in-the toaster look. For the family pose, our oldest son encouraged the younger three to smile for the camera. Imagine my surprise when I learned that was code for moon the camera man! I was mortified. Thank goodness the photographer chose not to snap that shot. After several minutes of uncontrolled laughter and very controlled threats, the photography session was finished.
Each picture, in turn, has a story of its very own. There is the wedding picture with our second son barely eking out some semblance of a grin because we threatened to withhold cake unless he smiled. There is the year my husband decided to grow a mustache, not his best look.
But a hundred years from now, people looking at our pictures might have the mistaken notion that we were a nice, normal family, and by normal, I mean perfect. I do not want that notion to be put in anyone’s head. We are a normal family, and by normal, I mean slightly off center.
In fact, as I am writing this, we are on our yearly family trip to Ogden, Utah for the Ogden Marathon. Twenty-one of us are housed in a beautiful condominium. I am in the upstairs bedroom trying to concentrate while listening to the chatter and noise downstairs. I visualize the picture that would accurately capture this moment. Leland’s lips are blue from the salt water taffy I bribed him with to take a nap. The twins are in their swimming suits and their wispy blonde hair is a mass of wet knots. The baby is snuggled in Aunt Catherine’s arms, and Aunt Catherine is gazing lovingly at her. Emily is concerned that her barely noticeable zit is the size of a dinner plate, and Heidi’s eyes are drooping from lack of sleep. Chantz’s shirt is unbuttoned and untucked, Ben is not wearing a shirt, Dallas is in sweatpants, Jaycie’s face is freshly scrubbed, and the boys’ faces need to be scrubbed.
If we lined everyone up for the family picture today, there would be fingers in noses, tears, tongues sticking out, puzzled looks, and closed eyes. Nothing would match, and Adam would be making everyone laugh. In other words, it would be the perfect snapshot of my nice, normal clan.
Yes, before marriage and children, I knew how my life would play out. But I am pleased it went its own way, no perfection, no pretense, and no Mary Poppins. Our family pictures do not tell the whole story, but the stories need to be shared. If only to let mothers know the family picture does not need to be perfectly staged. It is okay to turn their baby’s onesie backward to hide spit up, or smile after screeching to grin and look happy, or to not have matching shirts. They do not have to strive for normal because the only normal is the setting on their dryer.