My family is not big on family portraits. This is due, in part, to a trip to Olan Mills when I was six.
My sisters and I were meticulously groomed and dressed. The whole family wore matching colors in grand late-80s style: red, black, and white in various forms, with each girl wearing some form of polka-dot pattern.
My older sister Jayme and I were warned to be on our best behavior, while my mom fussed with the poofy cake-like dress she struggled to put on a very unwilling 2 year old.
My younger sister, Kate, does not like to dress up. She has insisted on jeans and a button down or snarky-messaged t-shirt most of her life. There was a distinct change starting with her first invitation to a high school prom, but still, she rarely dresses up more than twice per year.
As a theatre professional, she attends donor events with some regularity, and her transformation from paint-covered jeans, wrinkly shirt, and Chuck Taylors that are usually so old they talk to you is usually very stunning, as my sister is a gorgeous young woman; however, its lack of believability is on par with that of watching someone change into a werewolf under a full moon.
My mother wasn’t telling the fidgety two-year-old version of this person to be on her best behavior, cause, what would be the point?
I don’t remember much of the photoshoot, aside from the fact that Jayme and I were well-behaved to an eerie point that might have indicated alien beings with a quiet-hands-folded-neatly-in-your-lap,-and-slightly-tilt-your-head hive mind taking over our bodies.
What mostly burns in my memory is the screaming.
See, Kate was NOT HAPPY.
Not happy that she wore a dress so filled with tulle that the itch must be unbearable. Not happy that, for the first time ever in her life, my mother, who usually didn’t bother with little girl hair accessories, tried to put a scrunchy, stretchy polka-dot headband with a bow on Kate’s wispy baby hair.
The headband, like the well thought out matching outfits, was probably more expensive than my mother’s typical clothing budget. “Best behavior” to me meant that this was NOT an outfit in which I could climb a tree. So my mother really wanted Kate to wear it. For the FAMILY PORTRAIT.
A concept which a two year old does not understand.
My parents had made an appointment with the Olan Mills folks so that we wouldn’t have to wait long in our finery, thus upping the chances that Jayme would start chewing on her dress (a habit she continues as an adult with her t-shirts—they all have holes) or that I would start to climb the furniture or walls and somehow dirty what little white I was permitted to wear.
So we pretty much walked right in. Kate had been crying hysterically the entire drive there. And continued to do so throughout the entirety of the photoshoot.
The photographers, God bless them, used to a finicky kid who cries, had dozens of tricks up their sleeves to get the screaming baby to stop. They posed the rest of the family, and tried to take little group shots of the siblings—not happening, cause in addition to a face red with tears and a rush of blood from the constant noise, Kate wouldn’t sit still long enough to get a picture of the three of us.
So finally, we try to get the shot of the whole family. The headband was gone by this point, but Kate, ever resilient, hadn’t even BEGUN to wind down.
She sat on my mother’s lap, and the only thing that stopped the sound and the grumpy face was that my mother squeezed her knee, a very ticklish spot on my sister, and made her start to laugh uncontrollably.
Resulting in this:
Yes, we came together and got one good shot. You can see my mom squeezing her knee, but it’s only noticeable if you’re looking for it.
As we entered the house, exhausted, my dad said, loudly, and with all the determination of a stubborn Brittingham, “Well, never doing that again!”
And with that, his tie was gone, and he was off to his basement man-cave.
It was not actually the last photo we ever took. But we did not have another family portrait done for about 7 years. The next one, I was in junior high, and it was time to update the church directory.
We were allowed to pick outfits from things we already owned, and it was a mostly casual shot. I chose a frilly, floral accented top that matched my iridescent color-changing glasses. My sad attempts to be fashion forward in these years seldom appear on film, because I burned most of them.
Note: anyone from home reading this, if you find photos of me from this time period, please send them to me for
destruction filing. If they happen to appear on Facebook: I. Will. Hunt. You. Down.
The rest of the family accidentally chose matching colors and patterns.
A few remain, including this relatively painless, less than fifteen minute session that made my dad rethink the whole family portrait thing.
For about ten minutes. Then, as before, he was disinterested in family portraits. We had two, why did we need more?
As mentioned earlier, Jayme, Kate and I did not get a professional photo of us together at any point in our childhood. It wasn’t until I was in college, and the three of us, very sneakily, combined a photo shoot with day after Thanksgiving shopping. Again, we all selected matching ensembles—how we each picked pastel button down shirts without consulting one another, I’ll never know.
But perhaps the best family photo of all came almost ten years after the church directory.
My mother, knowing I was moving twenty hours away for graduate school, planned a family trip to the beach for the summer. Jayme was out of school and working, Kate was in college—who knew when the next opportunity for a family vacation would be?
As always, we headed for the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There, a trip is never complete without visiting Kitty Hawk Kites to play with the kites and the toys, and to pick up salt water taffy from one of the other little shops along the way.
But this year, we noticed, for the first time, the Old Timey Photo store. Now, we had Old Timey Photos—Kate and Jayme at an amusement park, me at a school festival, my parents when they were first married—but none of the whole family.
It didn’t take much convincing after we saw that they had color-tinted 1920s style photos.
So the family, for the first time in our short-lived portrait lives, happily posed for a photo. As I held my gun and bottle of liquor, I looked at my sisters, also with firearms and booze, and my mother, holding a giant bag o’ money with a dollar sign on it, and my dad, whose genuine smile from the tommy gun he was given is forever frozen in time, I knew this was a family moment to cherish forever.
What I can’t figure out is why my mom didn’t want this to be our Christmas card.