Get in the picture, Mom!
I will not.
I don’t want to, and no one can make me.
My dear friend Jules stands with her phone in front of our families, ready to take a photo. The two fathers are in the back, the three girls in front. There’s room for me next to my husband, Tom. His lanky body rises a foot above the others, and I know I’ll fit nicely under his arm. The white sugar-sand beach and clear aqua ocean is behind us, the perfect backdrop for a group photo. A whisp of a cloud lazily drifts across the horizon. A parasailer flies in the distance, a multi-colored shadow against the bright blue sky. White boats sail through the waves, while a light breeze tries, and fails, to cool down the blistering sun.
Tom impatiently gestures me to stand with him. I shake my head no, emphatically. I do not like having my picture taken, and I especially don’t like it when I’ve been in the ocean all day. We went directly to the beach after gorging ourselves with French toast, bacon, and coffee at the breakfast buffet. It’s now late afternoon, though I’m not quite sure of the time. The sun is slowly meandering its way down, and my stomach is grumbling for dinner, which I take to mean late afternoon. My watch is buried in the bottom of my beach bag and my phone is under my vampire-romance book on the hotel’s green and white striped beach chair. Time has no meaning on vacation. It’s either time to eat, sleep, or play. We have nowhere to be at any specific time, which is how I like it.
My hair is probably standing up at twenty-three angles, at least where it’s not matted and sandy. My cheeks are sunburnt and freckly. My straw hat is lost under a towel somewhere. I’d taken if off to snorkel in the salty ocean, where all I saw was sand under the wavy water. There wasn’t even a single fish. My Target coverup is damp and squished and I’ve no time to fluff it out and put it over my middle-age body that bore two children many years ago. I’m saggy and salty. No one needs a photo of me.
Come on, Mom, get in the photo.
My beautiful daughters call to me, and I want to be body positive for these girls on the brink of womanhood. Maybe by not wanting photos of me, my body insecurities will rub off on the girls, but I think life has probably already succeeded at doing that. I am careful to promote healthy eating, frown at the word “fat,” and don’t really worry about what the scale says. Still, I should be fearless for them.
I don’t even like being in a photo if I’ve had hours to prepare. I spent endless days prepping for my wedding photos. Even after having professional nails, hair, and makeup and wearing a wedding-cake of a dress, I still cringed when the photographer started snapping. I wanted to hide behind Tom, even knowing I was spending thousands of dollars on those photos. I didn’t hang a single photo wedding photo of me in the house. There were plenty of group shots of my extended family and friends carefully placed on my bookshelves. Some had me in the background, though I tried not to look too closely. There were none of me alone, a large framed bridal portrait like the ones that hang in my friends’ homes.
When I was a child, I’d run and hide in our rambling country house whenever Dad got out his silver and black Pentax with the extra-long lens. After Mom died, we found boxes of old orange and white rolls of Kodak film when we’d cleared out my parents’ house. I took the kids to the drugstore to get them developed, filling out the paper with my contact info, putting the cartridges in the tight envelopes, sealing them with the self-seal that always sticks to my hands, and finally placing them in the drop-box. We picked them up after a week, and hurriedly opened the sticky envelopes, pulling out hundreds of glossy images. Photos of me milking cows on the farm, my face turned away. Photos of horses silhouetted against the sun and my old worn-out tire swing hanging on the big branch of the pecan tree out back. Photos of Mom wearing a faded flowery apron cooking biscuits or sitting at the backyard picnic table smoking a cigarette, her favorite orange ceramic mug in front of her. The memories were an assault, and I quickly pushed the pictures back into the packages and haphazardly shoved them into a cardboard box in my closet, despite my daughters’ cries of surprise. I’ll look at them one day.
Maybe that old myth is true: photographs steal the soul. Maybe all the casual shots that capture nearly every moment of my family’s lives, that are loaded on my phone and in the cardboard box in my closet, are too much. Maybe that’s why I shy away from the camera. I don’t want to see my reflection staring back at me.
Come on, mom!
My youngest, Evie, hops on one foot, antsy for this to be over so she can get back to ogling the college-age boys lying on the striped loungers down by the pier. She’s 16 and spent most of the day moaning that the morning’s French toast made her flat stomach bulgy and taking investigative walks to the pier with Laurie, her sister, and Eleanor, Jules’ daughter. The three girls have taken pics of each other and posted them to their Instas all day. They have no problems with pictures, unlike me.
I’m used to being the one taking the photos. My phone is filled with thousands of candid shots of the girls and my husband over the years. From messy yogurt faces to first steps, field day at school and 5th grade graduation. I have an endless number of pictures. Very few of them include me. Tom will occasionally take a photo of the three of us girls when asked, but usually there will be a shadow of his thumb covering one of us. Or they’re at a weird angle. My husband is gifted in many things – photography not being one of them.
The girls’ baby photos are only of them. There was no sweet shot of me at a photogenic angle looking adoringly at their baby faces. No one wanted to see my blood-shot eyes and puffy body. People only wanted to see their lovely newborn faces.
You’re going to want a photo of this as a memory, Jules said, and I know she’s right. I’ve been dreaming of this trip through many snow-filled, cold months.
Now, it’s late March, and Jules and her husband, Alan, and daughter Eleanor are on Spring Break with us. Jules is the photographer for her family, and she’s been wielding her phone camera like she’s Annie Leibowitz. I’m bound to be in some photos. There is no excuse.
This is the first trip since Covid. We’ve spent the better part of two years holed up on our homes, home schooling our children, cancelling trips and birthday parties and playdates. My mother and Tom’s father passed away in the past year. They didn’t die from Covid, but due to Covid we couldn’t be there to hold their hands in their last days. We couldn’t have proper funerals. It’s been a difficult time, and this week at the beach is a relief. I’ll want photos to memorialize these carefree days.
There are very few photos from the past two years. Who wants photo evidence of our not changing out of pajamas for three days? Who wants to see the endless homework spread over the dining table? Or the makeshift Zoom memorial we had for my mother?
You look beautiful honey, Tom says.
I think he’s lying but I go to him anyways.
I can’t very well run and hide like when I was a child, so I join my and Jules’ families. My husband, who I’ve loved for so long and been so irritated with during these long months of mask-wearing and rule-following, reaches for me and I stand next to him, close to my daughters who see me standing in front of the camera. I stand tall and brush my hair away from my face and smile.
The camera clicks and it sucks because I don’t want to have my picture taken. I feel ugly and gross and unworthy of this moment at the beach, but here I stand in my swimsuit. I don’t look like the mom I want to be, but I am the person in the photo. I can be no one else.
Maybe I will look at this photo later and cringe. However, I will stand here and smile for the camera because I know it’s what I should do. Many years from now, the girls might show this photo to their children and say: Here’s Grandma and Grandpa. They took us to the beach with the Walton’s after that crazy pandemic. Here we all are.
It’ll be a memory of vacations with friends and triumph over pandemics and most of all, a memory of the love I have for my family.
Besides, I can always delete it if it’s bad.