Family pictures: “if only we knew what was ahead….”

October 29, 2013

contemporary-framesDo you ever look at old family pictures and wonder at the innocence they portray? How we knew nothing of the life that was to unfold? How each decision we made took us in one direction or another, and that direction completely changed what might have been another outcome? Do you look into your own eyes in a photo, seeking clarity and understanding?

The other night I had a dream that a family problem had been resolved to the satisfaction and joy of all involved. It was just a dream, but also a hope that I harbor. It drove me to my box of family photographs, each one capturing a moment in time, now long gone.  Some of the photos triggered a memory of what was going on in our family at the time. For others? I could only intuit.

But looking at old photographs with the benefit of age and maturity, I see things that weren’t apparent in the past. Delving into 60 years of old photos, I began to understand how our dysfunctional family dynamic developed. How it came to be.

I remember this doll and the rocking chair. I’m standing in front of the fireplace in the apartment above my father’s office, my first home.  Even at two, my dark eyes look out at the world with a certain seriousness and maybe a bit of uncertainty. The smile doesn’t look joyful or even innocent.  Children know more than we think they do. What did I know, then? Did I sense my mother’s unhappiness? Was my father as stressed and exhausted as he became later in his pediatric practice?

Maybe two years old?

Maybe two years old?

Thinking, always thinking, even as a child. I never felt exactly like other kids; I didn’t know how I was different, just that I was. Of course, children don’t value what differentiates them from the crowd. They value belonging, not separateness. And yet, I was never like my family, not in any way, shape or form. I felt like an outsider, always.

wpicdad in service

I imagine my mother composing this shot to send to Dad. Note that my brother’s not in it.

My father was called back to the Navy during the Korean War. My mother was pregnant with my sister and I was daddy’s little girl, the oldest. I didn’t know I was favored until decades later, when, on her death bed, my mother told me that I had been my father’s favorite.  Who knew? We had butted heads throughout my adolescence; so much of my life was spent dealing with the havoc that relationship created in my life.  I never figured I was the one.  If I’d realized it, my life could have been very different.

I was three, and I think we were meeting my Dad who was home on leave from Korean War service

I was three, and I think we were meeting my Dad who was home on leave from Korean War service

Patent leather shoes, all the rage back then. I wonder about this little curly-haired girl in the photo above.  I was never shy at all–rather precocious, in fact–but in this photo, I look shy, or at least camera-shy. Maybe I was worried about seeing my Daddy after he’d been away. Or maybe I didn’t want my photo taken.

posingkneelerringletsThose eyes. Again. By this time, the reality of life in my household was apparent. She doesn’t look happy, does she? Of course, it’s equally plausible that she was simply annoyed at the photographer. I never HAVE liked going along with the program.  In those days, my mother chronicled our lives with annual professional photographs, sometimes used in Christmas cards. Those ringlets were prized, at least by my mother.

missmuffet0001My mother sent me to dancing lessons for a year or two. Not too long.  This Bo Peep get-up was for a recital.  I never did develop much grace in movement, so I wish she’d continued these.  My sister, three years younger, never went to dance class. Was this was the genesis of her feeling that she was treated “less than” in the family? Did that simple maternal decision insert the first wedge between my sister and me?  Of course, dance class was not in the cards for my brother,  the middle child. I’m sure my Sicilian-American father felt it would not be “masculine” for his son to take dance.  This, too, was an indication of the attitudes we grew up with, the ones that colored our lives in ways unrecognized and difficult to overcome.

My mother and her father, our "Papa" and the three of us. Maybe Easter?

My mother and her father, our “Papa” and the three of us. Maybe Easter? The hats and corsages are a clue. Love Mom’s dress!

This photograph was taken on Portland Avenue in Rochester, NY, I think, near the home my mother worked hard to buy for her parents.  My grandfather was my mother’s best friend and a refuge from the marriage she was miserable in. “Papa” was what we called him, and he was a kind, thoughtful, gentle man, a peacemaker.  He had great influence on us and his ability to smooth things over was sorely missed as our family spun out of control well after his death. These happy smiles aren’t seen often in photographs I have and are a tribute to the love and safe haven Papa provided. Papa was all about unconditional love. All of his grandchildren adored him.

Let’s jump ahead in time:

The 60s. But you knew that.

The 60s. But you knew that.

I don’t know what year exactly, but not too long after this my brother began wearing a woolen cap to dinner, hiding the long hair my father disapproved of. He looks miserable, doesn’t he? Dad doesn’t look too thrilled, either. You can see the stiffness in my father’s face; he’d gotten very entrenched in his conservative beliefs as we hit adolescence, and tried in vain to keep us under his thumb. We wanted no part of it, especially me. I was openly defiant, which created constant conflict between us.  I see now that he must have respected that I had the courage to push back, considering I’d usually get the crap beat out of me.

My mother’s smile hid her pain. My father wasn’t the husband of her dreams, to say the least, and she’d compensate in many different ways over the years. In the end, they were both glad to have each other, but getting there was painful and ugly for them both and for us.  Our marital role models were awful and our subsequent relationships reflected that.

My sister was a pathologically shy girl and teen, who seemed meek and mild. Who knew that she felt slighted by my parents and overshadowed by me? That wouldn’t come out for years and when it did, it was with a vengeance.  As for me, well, by then I was keeping my own counsel, anxious to get away from home so my ‘real life’ could begin.

My grandmother's 80th birthday. That's my father and his sister, Aunt Ann, with her white hair.

My grandmother’s 80th birthday. That’s my father and his sister, Aunt Ann, with her white hair.

I’m pretty sure that lipstick is Raspberry Glace by Clinique and I still use it occasionally.  By this time, I’d been married to Michael and divorced. I had just remarried–my rebound husband. I was in the flush of new love–although it was a terrible fit and wouldn’t last long.  When my grandmother turned 80 my parents had a big party for her and I flew in from my home in Tallahassee to surprise her.  I was the only one of the three kids to move away and build a life outside of our home town.  It’s clear now that my choice to stay away and make periodic “appearances” back home was out of the norm. My appearance was “an event.”  It made me different from my siblings, which my sister must have defined as being treated “special.”  My visits were “occasions,” while they lived there all the time. Such is the stuff of which resentments are born.

But I was not to understand that until my 50s.

Each time I reach into my boxes of photos I come out with a handful of clues about my family, clues I might not have noticed years ago. I’ll be going back to those photos again and again in the hope that they’ll help me gain clarity and understanding.

What do old photographs tell you? Do they seem different with age and distance? Do you have more insight when you look at them now?

23 comments on “Family pictures: “if only we knew what was ahead….”
  1. I have a box full of photos given to me by my maternal grandmother. They are of her and my grandfather when they were courting and as children. And my mother and uncle growing up.

    They are of people I don’t know, and will never know. There are hundreds of them, all in a box, carefully inscribed with dates and sometimes names. Names which mean nothing to me beyond “Oh, that must be my grandmother’s brother’s widow,” or “I think that’s my great-great-aunt.”

    • admin says:

      What a shame. I have some like that, too. I wonder, with digital photos, how families will ever see stuff like this, though.

  2. Love this. And this resonated so: “I never felt exactly like other kids; I didn’t know how I was different, just that I was. … And yet, I was never like my family, not in any way, shape or form. I felt like an outsider, always.” We were/are so similar in our separateness.

    I wish I had photos from my childhood. There are very few as they were held hostage then destroyed during my parents’ hate-filled divorce. I often wonder, though, what my daughters will discover in the thousands and thousands I have of our family before the nest emptied.

    A beautiful post, Carol. Thank you for sharing.

    • admin says:

      I had that wish, too! This box of photos was serendipitous–my sister-in-law let me peruse it before she passed on what I didn’t want to my brother, who had divorced her and left the box behind. Since I always lived away, I had no easy access to these. And again, how will kids today get photos off our hard drives?

  3. Those pictures do tell a story, Carol. I also live with deep resentment from my younger sister and her feelings that I’ve overshadowed her life has ruined our relationship, at least for the time being. My father’s rage poisoned everyone, and in the end he is alone. It is all very sad, isn’t it?

    • admin says:

      Yes, very. I alternative between being ok with the way things are –accepting–and wishing they were different. But I can’t imagine ever having a real relationship with my sister. Ever. And the most interesting thing of all is that my family in the afterlife has had something to say about it. They agree. It’s come up organically in a small group reading with John Edward (11 of us). All so interesting. But hardly the fantasy family. I feel your pain, Chloe. xoxo

  4. Barbara says:

    What an insightful look at the family dynamics you have “endured” through the expressions and body language in photos. I enjoyed the personal nature of this post from you. You, by the way, were too cute for words with that little doll and the ringlets….and the 60’s? Oh yeah – those clothes and colors and “do’s” are undeniably of that decade.

    • admin says:

      Despite the deep thoughts, it’s kind of fun to look back at that era and how we were. I love the little girl I was and wish I’d had one of my own. Now THAT’S a regret.
      And when you’re talking to a medium and your entire family widens their eyes at something going on with the family here? And agrees about certain things? Quite an experience. I know not everyone believes in this stuff but I’ve had way too many hits to not believe.

  5. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    So interesting to look back at life through photos. Sometimes my husband and I look at our wedding photos and find it remarkable how the lives of our family and friends have changed so dramatically. Also, as a curly-haired little girl, my looks were similar to yours.

  6. mindy says:

    Wow, Carol, you’ve inspired me to go back and look at old family photos so that I too can gather some clues into whether we all were aware of how happy/unhappy we were at different times during my childhood. Unfortunately, 90% of my old photos are packed away in a storage facility in California, so the psychoanalysis will have to wait. But then again, the fact that I took very few of those photos with me says something in and of itself, doesn’t it?

  7. I totally know what you were feeling when you grabbed these photos. We lived almost identical lives as children, never belonging. Even in the family. I still feel that way! Anyway, did you feel great love for the little girl with big brown eyes? I used to look at myself with angst when I was young. If only I was cute, if only I had blue eyes, if only my nose was perky. Now I look at myself as a little girl, and I embrace her, and love her. xoxox great post

  8. Susan Cooper says:

    Our photos do tell us a story. Some are happy and some are not. 🙂

  9. Oh I love the photos where it looks like you’re all dressed up to go somewhere. It reminded me of Easter dresses we got every year. Dress, shoes, hat and new purse for 5 daughters was quite an ordeal- but the cute poised picture with us all dressed up is a family treasure. Great post!

  10. I always thought I had it bad because I was a child of a war– literal war, with bombs and death and all the insecurities and human fragility that it entails. But, unless my mom (our photo-album keeper) was very selective, I have nothing but smiley, happy faces forever frozen in time. This is very enlightening. I wonder what your other photographs look like, and as forthcoming as you seem to be about your past, how much you’re not sharing in this post.

    • admin says:

      If you had a happy family in the midst of war, someone was doing something right. Props to them for having those skills.

      All the photographs of my childhood look like these. My adult life? Much happier photographs. Freedom was everything to me. Of course, there are gory details about broken family relationships that I don’t provide here–and may write a book about, as it would take a longer form medium– but the outline of my family situation’s pretty accurate, at least from my point of view. I have a really good understanding of how it all unfolded now, with the benefit of age. Insights grew over the years as I got where my parents were coming from. And therapy of course.
      I don’t see any glaring omissions in my story. Perhaps some of my family would tell it differently–but that’s their story, not mine. I can only tell my truth. There is no objective truth, of course, it all depends on your seat at the festivities. 😉

  11. A fascinating look into the history of a family through photos. You are an expert at it, and even though I don’t know your family, you held my fascination from beginning to end.

    The dynamics of a family are always, always hard. This was an interesting look thru photos. I only hope you can repair some of the relationships that may have fallen by the wayside. It’s good to have closure, and even better when it can work out for the best.

    • admin says:

      That’s my hope, too, and at the same time, I am not sure it’s going to be possible. I try to be ok with it, and mostly, I am, but sometimes, the longing for the fictional family takes hold. But it’s all about learning and growth and I think it’s been useful to me in that way.

  12. I want to write this post too! I loved it! It’s like talking to your inner child. Great Pictures!

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