The most stressful day in our house is not April 15, Dec. 24 or report card day; it is the annual Family Christmas Card Picture Day. This is a tradition that began simply enough when the youngest of our three sons was a baby. Three boys – ages 9, 3 and 5 months, all dressed in red shirts, their eyes twinkling from the photographer’s flash – made an adorable picture to include in the 100-plus Christmas cards we mail every year. That went so well, we decided to do it again the following year, shooting the younger boys in a little red wagon, while our older son fingered a soccer ball. They were darling.
Thus began a tradition of the family Christmas photo. Since then the whole family has been snapped in various spots all over town – a gazebo behind an office building, in a park with ducks, on a wooden play gym, in front of the fountain at CNU and on the downtown Hampton Carousel.
We’ve worn Santa hats and flannel shirts and perched under the Christmas tree in our own living room. We’ve worn matching red vests that I stitched over a period of months. Sometimes our outfit is very simple – such as jeans and black turtlenecks – but the rule it, it must always match, it can never repeat and, preferably, the colors are Christmas-related.
Every September, I begin discussion of the family Christmas card picture in a democratic fashion. Where would the family like to go this year? What would the family like to wear? They all groan and glare at me as if I’d just asked them how they’d like their tofu served. They have no ideas of their own, of course, and I end up pulling it all together myself.
Every year I vow never to go through this ordeal again. While many on our Christmas card list express their enjoyment at seeing our spit-shined family as it grows up, I question whether the family trauma, personal stress and annual expense are worth the effort. But just like “they” say about childbirth, I seem to forget how bad the pain was by the following fall, and I’m ready to do it all again.
Last year’s Christmas picture outfit was selected in early August to match a beautiful forest green velvet hand-me-down dress passed to our new granddaughter Cheyenne by a cousin. I found matching forest green sweaters for husband Bob and sons Abram, 24, and Jordan, 14, at the first store I checked.
In August I lost my job due to downsizing. With all the extra time on my hands, I decided to sew simple velvet dresses for daughter-in-law Tiffany and me to coordinate with Cheyenne’s dress. And I was sure it would be no problem to find a forest green sweater somewhere within a 20-mile radius for 11-year-old Nathan. I’d already found the spot for our photo, too – an old, weathered brick archway in a Newport News park. I announced all the plans to the family at Sunday lunch, and everyone agreed. I was sure this year would be a breeze!
October rolled around, and I decided I’d better get cracking on those dresses. The pattern claimed, “make me in two hours,” but I was suspicious. I spent the better part of a day cutting out two dresses and most of the next day sewing mine. It looked huge. I tried it on. It was huge – which meant I needed to take in all the seams. Meanwhile, my new freelance business was picking up, and I had new clients calling who needed work done right away. I piled the unfinished dresses on the dining room table and put them off for weeks.
Halloween came and went, and it was November. I had to get those dresses made! I called my photographer friend Elliott to set a date for the pictures. We finally agreed on three o’clock Saturday before Thanksgiving. After numerous refittings, I finally finished my dress, hemmed it and sewed on the lace medallion at the neckline. I modeled it for my family.
“It makes you look – ah – wide, Mom,” said Nathan, never one to pull any punches.
“But I’ve lost weight,” I said.
“I guess not enough,” he said.
I was ready to throw out the dresses and buy sweaters like the ones I bought the guys. Which reminded me – I hadn’t found anything for Nathan to wear!
I combed the stores in three malls for a forest green sweater, and there wasn’t one to be found. The closest I came was a choice between two olive green sweaters in sizes small or medium. The small was too small, the medium was too large and neither matched the forest green the rest of us were wearing. Too tired to care, I bought the medium.
On Sunday before the picture was to be taken, I took the boys for haircuts and gave Abram the money to buy a pair of new khaki pants to wear with the sweater.
“Is it OK to wear an undershirt with the sweater?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, “No problem.”
Tiffany tried on her dress and it, too, was huge. It required refitting, reseaming and another try-on during the week. Meanwhile, I’d picked up three more demanding clients and I was working 12-hour days. By Friday, I was exhausted and the dress still hadn’t been hemmed. The next morning I was up at 7 a.m., coloring my roots, pressing pants and hemming Tiffany’s dress.
“The next time I have the idea to sew something to wear for the Christmas picture, I want you to tell me I’m crazy,” I told my husband.
“I tell you that all the time, and you don’t me pay any attention,” Bob said.
I called Tiffany and Abram to remind them to meet us at our house by two-thirty so we could get to the park by three.
“I’m not sure Cheyenne can still wear that green velvet dress,” Tiffany said, innocently.
“You stuff that baby in that dress,” I said, exasperated. “I don’t care if it buttons in the back or not – she’s wearing it.”
Saturday is grocery-buying day at our house. Bob is the grocery-buying person. I had made the list early so he could get to the store early and come home in plenty of time to get ready for the picture. True to form, he waited until noon to leave, shopped in his leisurely, price-comparison fashion and returned at two-fifteen. I was not happy.
“You’re late, and you’re hair is greasy.”
“I’m not late,” said Bob. “And my hair is no greasier that usual. I showered last night.”
“You are late AS USUAL and your hair is greasy AS USUAL.” I was not my usual, sweet-natured self. “I wanted you to come home in time to take a shower so your hair would be fluffy.”
“It’s fine,” he assured me. “Relax. All I have to do is put on my sweater.”
While Bob was shopping, I dressed Nathan. My plan had been for the guys to wear sweaters without shirts. Nathan said his was “itchy” and refused. I reluctantly allowed him to wear a turtleneck under his to keep him from crying.
Abram and Tiffany arrived. Tiffany couldn’t find her panty hose. The baby had a cold and was fussy. Abram was wearing clod stompers.
“Don’t you have better shoes than that?” I asked.
“No, I only have work boots,” he said. “Besides, are our feet going to show?”
“They might,” I said, edgy.
“Be careful,” Bob said to Abram, voice lowered and eyes rolling in my direction. The ‘B’ is out.”
The guys went upstairs to put sweaters on while Tiffany dressed in the bathroom. Bob emerged with his sweater over a light green Oxford shirt. Abram’s undershirt was showing from the neck, while Jordan looked perfect.
“Hey, ya’ll,” I said. “Bob, take off that green shirt. Abram, take off the undershirt.”
“You said I could wear an undershirt.”
“I didn’t know it would show.”
“I’m not going out there without an undershirt. It’s cold.”
“I’m not taking off the shirt,” said Bob. “I’ll loan Abram a shirt.”
“I can’t wear your shirts Dad – they’re too small,” he said. “I’ll just have to wear the gray one I had on.”
“But nobody will match!” I protested. “Nathan will have on a white turtleneck, Bob will have on a light green, Abram a gray, and Jordan doesn’t have any of those colors or styles.”
I was about to cry, but I didn’t dare. It had taken me too long to put on my makeup. “I put a lot into this, and you all are screwing it up!” I caved and order Jordan to put on a white polo shirt.
Tiffany came out of the bathroom. “I’m lop-sided,” she says, glancing down at her chest. One of her boobs was noticeably larger than the other because Cheyenne would only breastfeed from one side.
“I can fix that,” I said. I reached into my closet and pulled out a small, plain white box. I opened it and two shell-pink breasts – with nipples – sit perkily in their plastic nests.
“Hey, cool!” Tiffany said. “Where’d you get these?”
“I ordered them from QVC but I never had the nerve to wear them,” I admitted, as we popped one of the polymer puppies into her bra.
At three-fifteen, we pulled up to the park, which surrounds the Peninsula War Memorial Museum. We were supposed to meet Elliott at an old train engine a quarter mile from the parking lot. We passed several weapons of mass destruction, including a tank and a Howitzer.
“Hey Mom – why don’t we sit on the tank?” Abram asked. “Peace on earth, good will to men and all that stuff.”
“Over my cold, dead body,” I said, glaring. “That’s not EVEN funny.”
We met Elliott and proceeded to the brick archway. “So we’re going to do the picture right here in front of God and everybody – right here on Warwick Boulevard?” Abram asked.
“Gosh, Mom, all my friends can see us here,” said Jordan, pulling a roll of toilet paper and a fifth of bourbon from behind the bushes. “Did you know the homeless people use this place to sleep?” He had learned that useful tidbit over the summer when working as a teen volunteer at the adjacent YMCA.
“How do you want to do this?” Elliott asked. We have worked together on public relations jobs for more than 20 years, and we go through the same routine every time.
“You’re the photographer, Elliott,” I reminded him. “Just make us look good. And don’t make us look bunchy. I want this to look like an environmental shot. Like we just sort of casually walked up together in this park and leaned on this archway. Make it a three-quarter-length shot. Don’t get shoes, since Abram doesn’t have decent ones on. And don’t get that tank in the background. Make me look thin. Other than that, use your own judgement.”
He began meticulously placing us in and around the arch, propping Bob and Abram against the sides, flanking them with Tiffany—Cheyenne in arms—and me. He wedged Jordan and Nathan in the middle. Before taking Cheyenne’s coat off and exposing her to the cold air, Elliott took a few trial shots.
Finally, we were ready for the shoot. “Say poo-poo.” Elliott says, dancing and wiggling his hands over his head, trying to get the baby to smile. “Abram, stop looking so constipated. Nathan, don’t look at the baby, look at me.”
“Are my eyes too squinty?” I ask through my photo smile. “My eyes are always too squinty when I smile. I need an eye lift.”
“No, you need a brain lift,” Bob says, to which Elliott guffaws as he snaps away.
“OK, I think I got it,” Elliott says. “Wanna see?” He showed us the series of pictures through the back of his digital camera.
“I don’t know Elliott,” I said. “I’d like to see another pose.”
“Well, what do you want?”
“You’re the photographer,” I remind him.
“OK. Let’s put Abram and Tiffany and the baby on the left; Bob, Jordan and Nathan on the right; and Gail, you put one hand on the left side of the arch and the other hand on the right side of the arch . . .”
“NO, NO, NO! I’ll be the most dominant thing in the picture if we do that!” I protest.
“Don’t you want the picture to be realistic, Dear?” Bob said, showing off for Elliott again. I elbowed him in the side.
“Could ya’ll hurry up – the baby’s nose is running,” Tiffany urged.
“Nose break,” Elliott yells, while we all dig for Kleenex. “We gotta go, Mom – she’s not going to stand for much more,” Abram said.
“Can we leave now, Mom, before somebody sees us?” Jordan pleaded.
“Never mind,” I said. I could see that I had used all my tokens for the day. “We’ll go with this one.”
A week later, the proofs were ready. A number of them were surprisingly good, even though my eyes were squinty on every single one. Nathan’s olive green sweater stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb, so I asked Elliott if he could possibly adjust the color digitally to make it match our forest green outfits. He wasn’t sure, he said, but he would try.
The prints were perfect. Nathan’s sweater matched ours, Abram’s shoes barely showed, Cheyenne’s nose was not running and everyone was smiling. It’s impossible to tell that we had been sniping and whining just moments earlier.
I know the image of the family I see in our Christmas photos is a myth. But for 1/200 of a second every year, we look like the almost picture-perfect family.
(From the Year 2000 files)