The color Polaroid picture was fading away; it had been uncovered while I was sorting through a big box filled with loose photos saved for decades. It was a picture that had been snapped quickly before brunch on the last Mother’s Day, almost 30 years earlier, that we had celebrated as a united family. I scrutinized this last family group photo: Three teenage daughters, my husband Tom, his Mother, my Mama, and me. It set me to musing about how rare it is to find a snapshot of an actual tipping point in one’s life.
As was our custom in those days of marriage and accommodation of two extended families, my husband and I had invited both our widowed mothers to celebrate their motherhood and mine. Tom’s mother lived just a 15-minute drive away, mine about 45 minutes; Mama had driven over the previous day to spend the evening and night with us.
The suburban hotel near us had announced a special Mother’s Day brunch and I told Tom it sounded like a nice outing and he had agreed, if somewhat reluctantly. When we arrived that Mother’s Day Sunday, we all waited in a long line in the ballroom to be ushered to our luncheon table. While we all stood in line, a photographer approached and asked whether we wanted a photo taken to mark the occasion. I don’t remember the discussion, but the seven of us did group together for picture taking.
As I examined the photo all these years later, it was at first amusing to see our mostly-bouffant hairstyles and brightly colored, shoulder-padded clothing, but I finally focused on Tom towering over all us petite womenfolk: he at 6’1”, and 18-year-old Kathee, at 5’4” the tallest of us women at that time. Looking more closely, I could see that none of us wore a genuinely happy smile; most seem strained, as if our collective future has suddenly become apparent, but we’re trying to avoid the foreshadowing. Or, perhaps I read too much into our expressions; maybe they were simply the awkward smiles of family members ordered to “Say cheese!” by the photographer.
A few minutes after the Polaroid picture was finished and handed to us, we were being led by a hostess to our assigned table for brunch when, halfway to our table, an uncovered electrical wire laid across the floor tripped my elderly mother-in-law; she almost instantly landed face down. Our family and many others watched, horrified, later as paramedics lifted her onto a stretcher and carried her off to the hospital. Both jaws had been broken and her recuperation took months. Sadly, it was the first of several crises that charged up family emotions and ripped us apart; that instant photo documented when our lives began changing.
When our family chaos ended two years later, I finally stopped lying to myself, keeping secrets, and admitted that all our family portraits had been incomplete.
NEXT: Chapter 1. Sex and the Good Girl