Disclaimer: I do not enjoy holiday family drama.
That said, I am drawn to stories of turbulent, raucous family gatherings that include arguments about how to make the green beans and who was supposed to bring deviled eggs.
Personally, I don’t think it matters one bit how the fruit salad is made or even if it’s missing – except for the entertainment value of the story that evolves. In my family, that could include secret talks about assignment swaps and persuasive telephone discussions regarding specific recipes after the list comes out. I use fruit salad as an example, having been stripped of the privilege after the year I added cream cheese to the whipping cream. Heavy cream alone was a stretch since non-dairy whipped topping is the preference. Not a real preference, mind you. More of a “this is how we do it” preference. I have nothing against the traditional recipes, but I’m not attached to them. For me, the tradition is fruit salad, not the style.
In a post food assignment discussion at our huge family gathering, my aunt bested me in challenging the premise of my argument by asking, “didn’t you bring a pan of your mom’s dressing?”
I had. My sisters and I make sure Mom’s Dressing is part of each Thanksgiving and Christmas meal since the year she was too sick to make it herself. The year she died of breast cancer. High praise for my version came once when my niece took a bite and declared it “spot on”. So yeah, I’m attached to THAT recipe.
Recovering quickly with my aunt, I countered, “Yes, but I use butter instead of margarine!” She then laughed and sympathetically told of losing any chance of a green bean assignment because she once made a recipe that looked interesting and which included tomato sauce.
We gather in the lodge at Camp Wanica, near Corsicana,Texas. In any large group of humans who are related by blood, marriage, and choice, odds are in favor of some conflict. Our group typically includes 50 to 75 family members. Food is but one debate topic. My vulnerability with these people – my beloved family members who each could, without question or doubt – be my first phone call in a crisis – is The Picture.
I carry cameras with me, something I’ve done since high school. When they held film, taking family photos had a different vibe – cooperation seemed built in. Now, most people have a fairly good camera in hand most of the time. I don’t know if photos are generally less valued, but taking family pictures with a camera as an independent task feels different.
And posing for a family group picture is not a tradition because we don’t always do it. It’s sporadic but, missing my parents and getting older breeds sentimentality and makes it important to me. And it’s important to my dad’s sisters.
The first time I suggested it at Thanksgiving, without a tripod, it required careful placement of the camera on the top of a pickup truck and getting everyone outside and arranged in the shot (which is really only pointing out the boundaries) and paying attention (which is not possible). Social media sharing wasn’t here yet so several relatives with digital cameras wanted a shot with their cameras too. Imagine setting timers on five or six strange cameras, pressing the buttons, then getting out of the back of the truck and into the family group – all in seven seconds. Several times. That day people tried to stay focused through the chaos. Not create it.
So we have that photo. I love it, but I wouldn’t call it a good picture.
After our patriarch (also my dad) died we didn’t carry on with this annual reunion. In the haze of our grief, it may not have been a concrete decision. It just didn’t happen for a few years until one of my young cousins – in the same age group as my sons, approached me about a resurrection. There was push-back and plenty of arguments but those in his generation agreed enthusiastically. They longed to share this magical childhood tradition with their own children. So there we were, back at Wanica. And of course, I wanted a picture. The specifics are lost in the hundreds of photos I took that day, but vague memories of chaos linger.
Last year, I was on crutches and didn’t suggest it. Neither did anyone else as far as I know.
So this year, here’s what I did.
I started early – talking it up to anyone willing to listen. I suggested we take five minutes immediately following the meal because a few folks eat and run. Timing is tricky. We are predominately Dallas people so the Cowboy game matters. The turkey drawings must be judged while our kids sing Turkey Time before winners are announced and prizes awarded. Spoiler alert: every kid wins in categories made up entirely based on entries.
And we can only do so much during halftime.
As we ate that day, I sought family members willing to quietly help get everyone together and listening in support of a wonderful photo. That didn’t work.
Before the group even took form, the hecklers began shouting. Even those I consider my closest allies barked orders at me to hurry up (though I was simply standing and waiting). Well-intentioned cousins, voices raised, attempted to arrange relatives by size. (That didn’t work either.) The room was loud. High school pep rally loud, complete with echoes and reverb. Some yelling at me, some yelling at each other. The steady cacophony convincing me that this would be the last time because these people do not want a good photo and are only standing there for five minutes to begrudgingly indulge my annoying request.
I saw a couple of cousins hiding in the back, but did not notice my granddaughter up on her daddy’s shoulders which can throw off balance. Seeing problems did not matter because I could not convey suggestions. I longed to say “if you can’t see the camera lens, it can’t see you” before starting the timer and sliding into my spot. I think now it’s a stupid thing to say anyway. Some people do not want to be seen.
We managed two shots.
Panic hit me during the second because I did not hear the timer. I did hear the sound of the camera shutting down. But I kept that to myself until heading home with my son Zach, confessing fear that the one and only shot sucked. I described discombobulated thoughts darting around my head while seeking attention of what at that point could only be called a mob. Absurd thoughts of loyalty and betrayal. We laughed about commands to “hurry up and get the picture” using up more time. His take is that there is no way or reason to get everyone quiet because the crazy loud non-stop commentary is part of it – people yelling and talking for no reason except that’s what they want to do. I asked if he thought I should embrace it – like, make silly signs or drop the “get attention” step altogether and accept whatever comes out as is for what it is. Zach supports both ideas, leaning toward the latter.
The end of the story is that the picture came out ok. It’s not a great photograph, but there we are – even the two hiding cousins (barely). The cropping is odd to include my granddaughter’s head. But it’s also a record of that moment and proof that with all the problems and loss families face, we are together. We still do this.
I gaze at it and see us standing in a circle, holding hands. I hear decades of prayers led by my dad and now my uncles – and then, familiar verses of Amazing Grace as we sing together year after year – before we share another meal. The memories are happy and the traditions reassure me. Probably enough to keep trying for The Picture when I can.
The end of the story about taking this year’s family photo is that hecklers and helpers alike – people who just moments before behaved in a manner suggesting it is the last thing they ever want to do – and who I would have, while facing them, sworn do not care if this photo exists – each say the same thing to me. “Hey, Kathy – when ya gonna get that picture posted?”