On the Monday after Thanksgiving I awoke in panic. My children had been home for four days and then returned to their schools up North. I was shocked and horrified to realize I had somehow neglected to take the traditional photo of my children for the annual Christmas card! I had missed the opportunity of having them both together, and except for some fancy photo shop machinations, such as superimposing their faces onto reindeer, angels or elves, a technology far beyond me, there would be no card this year. Then I truly woke up. It had all been a dream. Thanksgiving was still a week away and like a miracle, I’d been given a second chance. Thank-you, I whispered.
For some unfathomable reason the Christmas card photo has always been an ordeal. They are not patient children and in recent years they have even behaved as if taking the photo was some form of child abuse. When they were very young it was much easier. I could dress them up in all kinds of little outfits without any objection.
“Here children, now you get to be elves. Put on these little striped clothes, and your cute slippers and here are some little jingle hats to wear. Oh, you look so adorable. Now sit between all these stuffed animals and smile,” and they did. They were too young, too innocent, too trusting to feel foolish or silly and bless them for it.
In addition to elves, they appeared as angels with halos, sleeping children dreaming of sugarplums (easiest card ever because they really were asleep), and decked out in various Christmas finery.
Along with costumes I’d also create a scene, some Christmas blanket or satin sheet precariously hung as a backdrop complete with strands of colored lights and sparkling tinsel. There was always a theme: Peace on Earth, the ever-popular Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas, Glamorous Christmas, Winter Wonderland, or Retro Christmas. To my credit I never went as far as Western Christmas, Alien Christmas, a onesie Unicorn, or Penguin Christmas.
Props were essential: light-up flowers, guitars, stars, a world globe, reindeer. It being Topanga, a flying pig, and once, a live cat. Locations around the house were our set and table lamps mounted on stools or handheld by the Beleaguered Husband drafted made up the lighting crew. I was the director and photographer, even though my skills behind the camera were limited. It would start off well enough but soon a certain grumbling amongst the ranks would set in.
“How much longer?” my bored son would ask. “I’m supposed to play baseball.”
“I’m getting tired of smiling,” my daughter complained.
Even the husband looking at his watch, mentioned that surf was up. I would frantically reposition my subjects, quickly move a prop, brush my daughter’s hair and re-hang a portion of the backdrop that had now fallen. I tried not to succumb to the ever-growing tension in the room while directing one child to turn right or left and tried to steady the camera.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” someone whined.
“Just one more,” I’d plead. “Come on its Christmas! Can’t you look at all happy, Riley?”
“No!” he answered.
The cat had long since left the room.
“Now just stand up straight Miranda, push your hat back a little bit,” I’d direct, noticing an extension cord was visible on the side of the frame.
“I’m hungry,” sighed my daughter like a princess about to faint.
“Almost finished,” I assured them, moving the cord, and desperately added,
“I’ll give you five bucks each for five more minutes.”
After a minute Riley proclaims, “This is stupid! I’m done here.” So much for the Christmas spirit.
The result was that many of the photos were flawed, out of focus, or badly lit. In some my son scowled with an intensity to rival the Grinch, my daughter yawning as if bored in a biology class on a hot afternoon.
I’d scroll through the few acceptable choices willing just one to be good before beginning the daunting search for the exact photo holder to perfectly frame and augment the picture. I accented the color in a dress or added candy cane stripes for a touch of fun or ethereal stars for something holy. Out of this chaos I was trying, like Van Gogh or God, for art and magic. Due to some Christmas grace, well beyond my limited mortal skills, sometimes I got it.
This Thanksgiving I brought out the old cards from those past years. We all have our personal favorites; I especially like the one with the cat, although the black and white photo with the children looking up at a rising strand of lights is stunning in its simplicity. Maybe I brought out the cards to enthuse my children for the photo I planned to take the next day, to rally them, as if to say, “Look, see what we can do. We created something, somehow wonderful. Let’s do it again.”
Miranda looked doubtful. “Uh, do we really have to? I’m not getting all dressed up.”
“I’ll be busy most of the day,” Riley warned. “I have plans.”
I reassure them. “Oh, this will just be at the beach, our own Topanga Beach, with the ocean behind you. It will only take a minute.”
The next day I grab some Christmas hats, a cool holiday pajama top, and a large plush Santa. Miranda is wearing an appropriate candy cane striped top. The sun is shining, the sea is sparkling, there is a perfect palm tree. Miranda stands next to the Santa, Riley sits in a beach chair. He will not wear the top or a hat.
“I’ll give you ten minutes,” he warns.
His good friend, Callum, is assigned as the photographer as I am deemed too slow and plodding. On the cell phone, Callum clicks away while I try to politely mention their faces are in shadow. I suggest the children face left and that’s when it all goes bad. I mean really ugly. Riley has rudely put a towel over his head and Miranda is yelling, “Don’t you understand we don’t want to do this. We hate doing this.”
Have I mentioned my children are no longer children but young adults? They have their own opinions and rights and as I stand there on that beach, I hear myself promise I will never ask them to pose again. That this is the last time and then it’s over. We put the Santa in the car and drive home.
Of course, through no fault of his own, none of Callum’s photos are usable. I wonder if, as in my dream, it might have been better to have just forgotten the whole thing. I cynically ask, “So who cares? Who wants a photo of someone’s grown children anyway?”
Then I remember the meaning of the card. It was always an attempt to capture a brother and sister together, growing up in Topanga, dressed in some sweet or fantastical get-ups, striking a pose, be it charming or ridiculous, in the hopes that it might bring a smile to the faces of those who receive it. It’s a little thing, I know.
I try to convey that to my children, as I again promise they are released, no more photos. After all these years I regret not so much that we didn’t get a usable last picture, but that it ended so badly.
My words must have had some effect, whether due to guilt or grace, because on their way back to their schools, my children stopped off at the Madonna Inn and took a photo of themselves to use for “The Last Christmas card.” After all that effort, it is, first and foremost, about the magic that is Christmas.
Merry Season to All!