I come from a family that does spectacularly well on paper. I certainly don’t carry the pedigree of some of the kids I grew up with — none of whom would have me in their social circles, anyway; we lived in a one-story house, for Christ’s sake — but from bank statements and real estate deeds to boastful letters hand-signed and lovingly placed in Christmas cards, we look good.
Picture perfect, even.
Family portraits line the mantel, crowned by an elaborate oil painting, in my grandparents’ formal living room — which is important to note, as they actually have three living rooms: the formal living room, carpeted in flawless white and accented with a shiny marble fireplace; the library, with floor to ceiling bookcases and an unabridged dictionary sitting open to the same page, forever and ever; and the “green room,” which isn’t green anymore. It’s wallpapered in a heavy coral hunting-print toile, anchored by two worn chairs with sunken cushions and smells of pipe smoke from lazy, three-newspaper mornings and before-dinner Scotch.
But the portraits, like so many aspects of my family, look so much more perfect captured on film than the real life they suggest. We wear unbearable clothing — take, for instance, the stiflingly hot, matching red corduroy dresses and strings of flawless white baby pearls that my sister and I were wrestled into before we even had all our baby teeth — slap on forced-natural smiles and contort our bodies into poses that no one should have to endure for even a second. For minutes at a time.
Just after Thanksgiving in 2007, my mother’s side of the family was corralled into that coral toile living room to take what my grandmother, ever the imposing matriarch, threatened could be her last family portrait ever for that year’s Christmas card.
We had argued, lamely, for weeks beforehand about the day’s attire. My grandmother was adamant that we not only match one another but the room’s décor as well. Meaning we would all wear neutral colors: brown, tan, khaki, eggshell, ecru, winter white, maybe a splash of dusty brick or baby pink. We would make Sherwin Williams and Ralph Lauren proud. My sister had spent half the morning in tears over what she would wear; I complained until the last minute that I had not a stitch to wear in those colors. But discovered a chocolate-brown sweater and plaid pants buried in my closet at the last minute. Topped off with a hand-strung pink pearl necklace, I was a picture of upper-middle-class white privilege.
That morning, the green room’s vaguely pleasant, stale scent of lingering pipe smoke had been replaced by the acrid stench of fresh cigarettes; my mother’s sister and her husband — for the moment, anyway — had been chain smoking since they arrived, never bothering to consider that my stepfather is horribly sensitive to it. They’d also been drinking since they arrived, likely stressing over their not-adopted-yet-but-hey-we’re-giving-it-a-try son; he was running amok through my grandparents’ house, playing with antique African tribal flutes like they were Star Wars action figures.
At least 12 of us sat for the photo, sprawled across the plush carpeting in various states of kneeling, sitting and standing, manhandled by the flamboyant photographer and melting under his bright, artificial lighting. In the shot that went out in the Christmas card, no one blinked. We held our smiles; the pleats of the men’s pants were smooth, and the women’s hair was collectively parted just. so.
Seated in the bottom left corner: me, always camera ready with the same coruscating smile. I am a bigger mess than most people I know, yet I've found I can conveniently blind most anyone to it with a white smile and a coy word or two. There's a silver Tiffany bracelet dangling from my right wrist; I wore it every day while I was living in New York; my mom and sister each have one that matches.
My sister is next to my stepdad, who I'm pretty sure she tried her damnedest to drive away until she realized her efforts were futile — his love for my mom was too strong to be torn apart by a little girl's petulant fear of change.
My mom's smile is inexplicably sincere, the still frame of the photo betraying her left hand's increasingly intense tremor from the Parkinson's that began to shake her life when she was only 39. Just before my dad met someone else, refused to work through it and left us all in a lurch that we've never recovered from.
That little nucleus — my sister, mom, stepdad and me — seems huddled together off to the side, united more than even by our collective hope that it would all be over soon.
My aunt is next to to my mom, her sister. She wears a sassy, Cheshire-cat grin on her face; her husband (my sort-of uncle) and the not-yet-adopted boy form a triangle in the middle. Her husband looks uncomfortable; maybe he had some inkling that she was about to go off the deep end and kick both of them out of his dead mother's house. I hear they're trying to work it out.
My sort-of uncle's two children look like afterthoughts in the photo, their faces missing the family resemblance and possibly wearing a bit of relief that there's no blood relation there; they've come and gone from our family gatherings year by year. They've never quite understood our penchant for complicated Christmas crafts and obsessive adherence to tradition. (My father, it seems, didn't either.)
His daughter, just a few years older than me, lives in Chicago too. She has nothing to say to me.
My male sort-of cousin, a lawyer for some elite segment of the U.S. military, had recently left his wife and newborn baby for another woman, whom he elected to bring along that day. She was perched awkwardly on the arm of another sofa in the room, her eyes shifting quickly as we grew progressively frustrated, torn between the commanding voices of the overpaid photographer — whose résumé could have given Annie Leibovitz a run for her money — and my grandmother, who barked orders incessantly despite her lack of expertise. Both demanded total compliance, one for the sake of his portfolio and the other for her reputation.
I pitied that “other woman,” the only outsider permitted to watch the chaos of my family’s supposed perfection in the making. Such a process to assure others that all is as it ought to be.
Yes, that's right: Envy us.