Writing from Photographs

Images inspire essays in Paul Hendrickson’s creative writing course
February 28, 2008

It's only a deceiving photograph if you don't look hard enough. At first glance you probably wouldn't notice the misery jammed into my dad's mouth, or the way my parents use their children to keep distance between them. It is December 26th, 1996 and we are at Pier 39 on the San Francisco Bay. We came for the sea lions. You can't see them in the water behind us, but I remember the way they spread their bodies over the rocks or hoisted themselves up with their flippers, noses pressed against the sky. It should have been a perfect vacation. We were in a beautiful city with lots of extended family and a gorgeous house all to ourselves, courtesy of my mom's friends, the Warners, who had gone out of town. But it hadn't stopped raining and there was no fireplace for our stockings and every night I felt my parents' sharp words slice through the wall separating our bedrooms.

My mom and Joseph are wearing jackets they borrowed from the Warners. We had assumed we wouldn't need raincoats in California, but the weather lingered somewhere between a halfhearted drizzle and a smothering fog. Tony Warner is only a year older than Joseph, and Maggie is a year older than I, and I remember feeling like I was living her life. My mom has Maggie's blue fleece jacket flung over her arm — clearly the enchantment I'd felt at being allowed to wear what I wanted from another girl's closet has worn off. It wasn't just the coat, though--it was her bedroom and dollhouse and metallic blue nail polish. The second we arrived at their house I clambered up the slippery wooden stairs, eager to inspect my temporary bedroom. I loved the hammock full of every stuffed animal imaginable, and the way the pink, plush carpet felt under my toes. I spent that evening painting my nails blue with Maggie's polish, and played a little game with myself as I went: if I sat up straight and pursed my lips just right I could almost believe I was Maggie Warner, one whole year wiser and more sophisticated.

When I use my thumb to cover Joseph's mouth in the photo, the desperation in his eyes consumes me. All of our family's unspoken issues swim around in that tiny body, weighing him down. I know we both wished we could burrow into Tony and Maggie's lives the way we burrowed into their huge beds at night — safe and snug and right. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a gigantic house filled with plush carpets and warm jackets? Joseph's crooked thumb, the size of a tube of Chapstick, is trying to do so much for the four of us. Seeing my brother's need to show everyone, "See? We're all ok!" makes something heavy in the bottom of my chest.

My mom is doing the same thing in her own way. Even today, years after their divorce, my dad will tell you that his ex-wife has a talent for being cheerful. She tells the camera that everything is fine, and flashes the same grin she wore for her wedding pictures. She and Joseph are a little team, ready to take on any glitch in the plan.

My dad hadn't wanted to go. It was supposed to be our first Christmas in the new house — the one he had designed down to the doorknobs. My mom presented him with the idea in September, just a few weeks after we'd finally gotten settled. The move was one of the last things they did to try to make it all work. A clean slate. When my dad said he didn't want to leave home for Christmas, my mom informed him that she would be going and taking me and Joseph with her. He could come if he wanted. He didn't want to, but he came all the same. Each of my mom's four sisters burst into San Francisco that Christmas, their husbands and children trailing just a few steps behind. The whole thing was an early celebration of my grandfather's seventieth birthday. He flew out first-class from Rhode Island and we toasted him over elegant meals on his dime.

My dad is wearing my grandfather's old jacket. My grandpa was always giving piles of clothing away in an ongoing effort to keep his life, and his bureau, in order. My dad's smile looks to me more like he's baring his teeth, challenging anyone to get in his way. I can't shake the feeling that if he withdrew his hand from his pocket it would be swollen and red, throbbing with all of the anger he's hiding. At dinner the night before, he chatted with "the boys"—an eclectic set of brothers-in-law who have little in common besides their wives' family. He probably had one glass too many, holding each sip in his mouth for a second, a brief reprieve before swallowing. Joseph and I secretly enjoyed our fancy clothing, but my Dad hates wearing ties and his sport coat made him sweat in the small, candlelit room.

On Christmas Eve my dad decided that we needed a buche de noel. Surely that would make things better. He called dozens of places, before finding a gourmet grocery store. One of the things that helped him get through Christmas dinner was the thought of the chocolate treat waiting for us at the house. He knew Joseph and I would jump up and down and that we'd all sit at the table and eat it together. Just us.

You can't see my rainbow tights in the photo. The outfit was a Christmas gift from an aunt, and even though it was too big and too warm I wore it that day. The pin was a present, too. I used to always try to use and wear every present I could the day after Christmas in an effort to make December 26th feel less like a letdown.

Christmas was different that year, though, and it wasn't just the lack of snow on the ground. It was my first year knowing the truth about Santa Claus. I'm standing tall in the photo, making a conscious effort not to appear childlike. I was knowledgeable now, informed of the deceitful nature of life. There was no Santa and my parents hadn't slept in the same bed for months, and I kept catching them watching me, sadness sunk like stones in the bottom of their eyes.

The Warners had no fireplace so we laid our stockings out on the living room floor. Joseph worried that Santa would find this unacceptable but I reassured him, glancing at my parents to make sure I was saying the right things. Joseph woke me up around six o'clock on Christmas morning. "It's Christmas! It's Christmas!" I still felt the familiar sparks of excitement, but I couldn't deny the grief that sat in the back of my throat as we ran down the stairs and into the living room. It wasn't our house, there wasn't a Santa, and why were Mom and Dad sitting so far apart on the couch? I may have overdone it a bit, with my, "Oooh look what SANTA gave me, Joseph!" and "Wow, I wish Santa was here so I could thank him!" but my brother didn't seem to take notice. I thanked my parents later in private, and I can still remember tracking them down in opposite corners of the huge house.

Everything's not broken yet. The fact that my parents even posed for the picture is evidence of this. None of us were ready for the grueling trip home. I remember something about a fuel problem, and the way my parents' faces scrunched up. Soon we were landing in Salt Lake City. My dad was sighing and grunting a lot, but my mom sat perfectly still so as not to disturb Joseph, who was sleeping in her lap. We exited the plane to a chorus of "So sorry for the inconvenience." I don't remember the shuttle bus. I must have been groggy. I probably enjoyed our little adventure; it bought my family more time before we returned to our half-unpacked house, where unspoken frustration stuck to the walls and pooled on the floor.

Eventually we made it to a hotel in Kentucky. The theme of the dank, gloomy building was medieval torture. We'd had to leave our luggage in the airport, so when we got to our room I enjoyed "making do" without a toothbrush or pair of pajamas. Joseph and I made our way to one of the slumped beds — we always shared when our family stayed in hotels. Our parents stopped us before we got too far, informing us that "the girls" would be in one bed and "the boys" in the other. They were too weary and irritated to try to explain themselves. I'll never forget the way my mom held me that night, hard and tight, and her hot, heavy breaths smacked my ear.

It is the last photo ever taken of the four of us. It marks the last vacation, Christmas and plane ride we spent together. I remember lying in bed the night after we arrived home, waiting for someone to come and tuck me in. Usually one parent attended to Joseph while the other came to me, but this time they both entered my room. I don't remember a lot of things about the conversation, but I do know that I was lying on my back with the covers pulled up tight under my chin. They loomed over me and their eyes were sad. I don't know whether I asked them a question or if they just decided to tell me. Either way, they said something confusing about a chain that had broken during our trip to San Francisco. I remember the way they shared the sentence, each saying half of the words. I felt like I was supposed to understand everything, so I didn't ask questions. Under the covers I dug my fingernails into my palms.

The original copy of the picture is missing now. For a while after the divorce Joseph had it framed in his room, but no one was sure if that was the right thing. It eventually disappeared. So now the picture sits, abandoned, in a hiding spot somewhere — my dad can't remember where he put it. I would never wish for things to go back to the way they were, but, even so, I like thinking that I'll stumble across the photo some day. Up high on a dusty shelf in my dad's closet, perhaps, or maybe covered with cobwebs in the basement. Regardless of where my dad decided to put it, it's nice to think that somewhere, in some corner of our house, the four of us are together.

Molly Johnsen is a sophomore majoring in English with a creative writing concentration. She has a minor in Spanish and spends most of her free time training for a half-marathon. Some of the names in this story have been changed in order to ensure privacy.