The Family Photo: Wrangling memories together


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?”

Kat Bailey
Kat Bailey lives in the community of Hopewell, Texas, in a log cabin with her husband and pups. She is a wife, mom, GranKat, writer, artist, skirt-wearer, and memory-maker. She likes to think about life, change, and sending light into the world.


  1. For me, where I once had family I now have relatives. The old saying goes “You can’t pick your family.” But in truth, you can.

    My advice to folks is if your family is a bad fit, just walk away. You don’t need that kind of disrespect, negativity and disharmony. There are many warm and friendly places that will welcome you.

    After reading Kathy’s story, I offer these haunting words from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” I sang at my Mother’s memorial in 1990…

    “Time it was,
    And what a time it was
    It was . . .
    A time of innocence
    A time of confidences

    Long ago . . . it must be . . .
    I have a photograph
    Preserve your memories
    They’re all that’s left you”

  2. Such a beautiful story that really captures the intricacies of family. Needed this going into the holidays where repairing my relationship with my sister is priority. Thank you for your words!

  3. I love your vignette. I am there and have experienced much the same. A real human experience and memory. Keep writing, dear, you have something to say.

  4. great story Kat, and oh so true, family is family no matter what! We always love them and sometimes even like them. Memories last forever I pray and if some of us can’t remember there’s bound to be one who can do the remembering for us. Thankful for family with all the love and craziness!

  5. This made me smile the entire time I was reading it. I felt like I was a part of your celebrations, and the frustration was palpable for me. Photos are important to me too. I didn’t know how important they would become until I could count on one hand how many photos I had with my whole family.
    Your writing always captures my attention, Kathy. Thank you for sharing this! I love having a small look into your world and life.

  6. Hello Kat
    Very nicely written
    Sometimes pictures remind me of old love letters. The good and the bad roller coaster of emotions that makes us all who we are and who we know.
    It’s not everyday we’re blessed with such rich rewards. Thank you for the fond trip.
    Looking forward to more

  7. As I read the the picture perfect story of a not so perfect but loving family, I was reminded that I need to make the extra effort to mark the history of the moment, no matter it ends up looking like or how difficult the subjects are as often as I can. I, too, prefer a camera. I enjoyed the opportunity to be transported back to the echoing halls of Camp Wanica and the challenges of dealing with all the different aspects of tradition! Well done Kat!

    • Thank you, Kathleen. That Camp Wanica has a mystique, doesn’t it? I enjoyed writing this and though I have enough material to write volumes on Camp Wanica, this is the only thing I’ve ever written about our tradition there. I appreciate you reading and sharing your thoughts.

  8. Loved this story of family. Humans matter, especially the ones in our family, when they speak their mind and your family sounds as loud and unkempt as mine. Gotta love em though. You have a wonderful writing style—-it engages me, its natural and its human. Good job and good photo. When I saw it, I was amazed at just how many you managed to get in one shot. And, of course Lily was not still. Is she ever?

  9. I never really had the traditional traditions growing up, but as I’ve gotten older and having kids of my own I have tried making new family traditions. With the little ones it gets kinda crazy, and you learn to embrace it and say “well I tried”. I think the best story’s come from when it didn’t go as planed anyways.

  10. My dearest cousins I truly miss. This story was awesome Kathy. I needed the closeness we had. It is so hard in December since Moma is gone. I can’t believe it’s already been 4 years. You know I remember you still in school and always had a tripod. You taught me some things. Miss you all so very much. Xxooo love Sena
    You keep writing you hear!

  11. I enjoyed this story because it reminded me of the traditions that my family had when I was a child. This is a story about love, family, and traditions. My parents are both deceased and I seldom see my siblings anymore, which made this so much more enjoyable. I can only imagine the picture taking. I got a good giggle out of that. It was extremely well written and I enjoyed it very much.

    • Thank you, Jane. I honestly didn’t think I could authentically engage in our Wanica reunion after my dad was gone. It was brutal the first year after we lost my mom. But, the cousin who approached me about it said my dad would want us to keep it going and I went in to the resurrection with that in mind. It was hard, but truly joyful. Thank you for reading and for visiting Hello Humans. Please visit again!

  12. I loved this piece because it was so warm and fuzzy, like eating comfort food. We all have love/hate relationships with family gatherings, I for one cherish them!

  13. I hope this isn’t redundant as the net failed on my last submission.

    It’s stories like this that bring back memories of our own “special” holiday traditions. As we share these remembrances we become part of a larger family of Human Beings. Good work Kathy, between your painting, concrete artistry, and writing you are achieving what Maslow termed “self actualization”. With cell phones, the internet, and that old faithful the television we often forget it’s the Human interaction that makes each of us special. I’m proud to call you Friend.

    • Thank you, Al. I told my pastor one time “I’m about people ~ no what or where” and he said I was already ahead of the game in coping with a difficult situation. I didn’t understand then, but I do now. Thank you for taking the time to read. And that “call you Friend” thing… well, that is mutual.

  14. Well-written and very relatable! As a member of a big family, I can attest to the cacophony involved in taking THE picture. It’s a crazy sight to behold, but always a moment I like to remember.

  15. Charming and engaging portrait of family tradition that could really occur anywhere on earth. Warms my heart, although I must confess to a bit of envy for anyone who gets this experience annually. My family is much more fractured. Thank you for letting me peak through your window.

    • Greg. a friend asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving and I told him a bit about our Camp Wanica tradition and about the kids who drew turkeys are now helping their kids draw turkeys. He said, “I don’t think people really do that kind of family get-together much anymore. It’s nice that y’all do.” I had not thought about fractured families a lot until my chat with him, but I have been since. Thank you for taking the time to read this and your kind words.

  16. Very descriptive story everyone can relate to. I have an idea, feed them after the picture! You get at least three shots or they don’t eat!!!!! Ha!

    • That has occurred to me, but the demands of the kitchen are just too much to interrupt and I don’t think one me could stop anyone from lining up for the food! Only my dad had that kind of power! Thank you for taking the time to read, Lisa.

  17. What a lovely tale of family and memories raw with honesty and love!

    We have taken comparable pictures in our family where there was some cousin griping in the background because I was the “bossy” one. It’s only when we are older so we realize the importance of those photos. I too was striving for perfection at the time.

    Now, I just take the photo with the warning of 1, 2, 3. If they have a scowl on their face, chances are they do most of the time. Capture the memory Kathy ….

  18. Memories are precious no matter how they are made. Honestly, reading this message made me glad I have a small family! Love and hugs, sweet Kat!!!! <3

  19. I’m so proud you, my Big Sister, Kat Bailey for not only embracing the resistance of this long journey that is our rock and family, but also making paths for others to remember, acknowledge, and cherish. It’s a true legacy and someone, all of us should talk about how special it’s been often. Perhaps someday it will be folklore to our decendants ~ about the magical Thanksgiving we have all shared, cherished memories we are all so grateful for. The legacy, Camp Wanica. Lovely story. Thank you 🙂 Love, Kristy

  20. I always have good intentions —somehow, I usually fail to get a family photo. Reading your story does remind me of a few past attempts, while at my mom’s family gatherings at La Grange. It’s chaotic at best with dogs and babies, but always full of love.

  21. Great story! I have memories involving family photos at all our gatherings: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. The family usually laughed because mom would make us take multiple pictures, usually with multiple people taking the pictures with multiple cameras, and more recently, multiple phone cameras. We always groan when it’s time to take the photo, because we’re full from stuffing ourselves with good food. However, looking back at these photos is a precious memory, especially after my brother died.


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