I believe that when family photos were taken years ago, no one was told to say “cheese.” In the photos I have of my parents’ families when they were young—all posed by a professional photographer—you might see serenity, but never a smile.
Coming across an old black and white photograph of a family I don’t know, I see no serenity in any of the faces, and wonder what their story might be.
The young boy has a nervous but hopeful look. He is well behaved and sits under the close protection of his mother’s arm.
His mother, Emily, is in her best blouse and skirt and leans forward anxiously. As the oldest child, she has always born the weight of her mother’s vast disappointments in life. Striving to offer something good and pure to make up for the family’s misfortunes, Emily has married a decent man and given her mother a grandson.
But Grandmother Sarah is not pleased with her decent son-in-law, nor with the child. Grandmother Sarah pulls her arms close to her and folds her hands in her lap with resignation. She certainly wants nothing to do with the man sitting next to her. He is only the father of her son’s wife, after all.
Jacob, the only person wearing a hat in this indoor photograph, sits self-assured, and assuredly is not a member of this family. He has a cigar between his fingers and will be sucking on it as soon as this charade is over.
Willem, the decent man, has only the top button of his suit jacket buttoned, and it pulls into awkward wrinkles. He has done his best, working six and a half days a week in the dry goods store to support Emily and the boy, but feels no gratitude for it from anyone. He can never think of a thing to say under the cold glare of his mother-in-law, so he spends as little time as possible in her presence.
Willem had tried to make friends with Emily’s younger brother, Emil, but that was not to be. Young Emil made it clear that he stood high above the other members of his family, and that included Willem.
Emil stands with only his bottom jacket button fastened, giving him an expansive look. He has one hand resting on the chair his father-in-law sits in and the other slung across his young wife’s shoulder.
It is she, Evelyn, who expresses the most unhappiness. Her lips are downturned, her eyes downcast. How has she, daughter of Jacob, ended up a member of this unhappy family?
It was Emil’s too serious devotion to her in their courting that had turned Evelyn’s head. She had not meant to marry at all. She had ambitions of her own to fulfill—ambitions that her father, a widower, was likely to have supported in order to keep his only child closer to home.
Soon after the wedding Evelyn learned that she had been betrayed. Emil was not in love with her. His devotion had all been a sham. She was just a thing Emil had wanted, and now he had moved on to the next thing he wanted. Standing there for this family photo, Evelyn bitterly plotted to someday free herself of this whole clan.
Standing in the back a little apart from the rest, Grandmother Sarah’s spinster sister rightly wonders how she ended up in this photograph. Why would they want to record her presence among them for posterity when in their daily lives she was so ignored?
The photographer raises his head to indicate they can now relax and disperse. He has finished taking the photograph of this unhappy family.