Behind the photo.
I found a pile of of VHS tapes tucked away in a drawer a few months ago. These tapes chronicle all our family Christmases and birthdays throughout the 90s- my mom was a fanatic about filming things. She would either walk around with the camera herself, a huge monstrosity of a thing she would balance on her shoulder- you remember the ones. Or, she would set it up on a tripod and let it record for hours. She generally did this on Christmas Day, hours upon hours of us opening one fascinating t-shirt, toy, book, or game at a time- ooohing and aahing over each one, with the occasional break for Mom’s neurotic cleaning of paper piles and bows.
I selected one of the tapes, the most recent in the bunch: Samantha’s 3rd birthday in September of 1997. This was less than two years before they died and mere months before all hell broke loose and our family fell apart. Really, it was the last large “family” gathering- including aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends. The calm before the proverbial storm.
I popped the tape in, thankful that we actually still have an ancient box tv with a VHS player. I’ve gotten on my husband’s case to get rid of the thing for years but he stood firm in his hoarder ways. Instead of my usual disdain as I walk by the thing, I said a “thank you Jesus” and pushed play. Black and white fuzz filled the screen for a few moments then the scene popped up. Sept 19, 1997 at 5:16pm. My cousin John and sister Sammy, both three years old, running around a large oak tree with a Winnie the Pooh pinata swinging among the branches.
Winnie the Pooh. It all flooded back.
Sammy loved Winnie, or was it Mom that did and simply dressed us all in Disney memorabilia? I can’t recall. All I remember is that particular party, we were told to wear our Tigger and Eeyore shirts, smile, and essentially pretend everything was fine. We were fine. All was FINE. Our family was pretty good at that. As extended family and friends rolled in, I set up chairs and organized the bags of chips, two liters of soda, and paper products. Mom had a thing about making sure things were perfect, coordinated, happy. Birthday parties and holidays were usually filled with tradition, matching outfits, oodles of gifts, Mom’s famous potato salad, and cameras rolling…the question always whether mom would be sober or slightly buzzed through it all. It set most of us on edge wondering how the scene would unfold.
This particular gathering, mom was surprisingly sober, happily manning the camera and chatting about the weather while ordering others to grab gifts and check the grill. Chris dutifully stood at the pinata, patiently helping three and four year olds as they swiped the air with a gigantic stick, the crowd laughed while secretly wishing the biggest kid would just get up there and smash the thing so we could all move on.
The normalcy of it all. The facade.
It really isn’t much different than how social media operates now. We post our highlight reel, or happy moments, our joyful photos- all while there is pain, sadness, and tension teeming under the surface. We turn to the camera and smile, painting a happy face for those around us, while our hearts are breaking or simply numb. We don’t share what’s beneath, no, we don’t take video of that. This particular party was interlaced with so much pain, so much hurt, so much sorrow- but we ignored it. We still turned the camera on, wrapped the gifts, cut the cake. We still invited others in and moved on with the show. I’m now so thankful Mom chose to press record. It’s all I have left of her voice, her desire to create normalcy, her hope in tradition and memories. It’s the only glimpse I have that she really did want to do better, be better, love better.
It’s the last home video of her I have before she and my sisters died.
I think of social media now, nearly 20 years later. My mom would have loved Instagram. She was an obsessive photo-taker, eternally focused on documentation, cataloging, angles, the proper lens. Add a filter to her desire for a perfect shot? She would have been ALL IN. Signed, sealed, delivered. Maybe this is why I love IG so much, because she would. I love capturing the perfect moment, adding a filter, then captioning it with a reality sentence. My four boys, on the floor, carving pumpkins? How sweet! Then the caption: “One was gagging so much he nearly threw up, one wandered around staring at us like we were nuts (my toddler), one dove in right away because GUTS!, one refused to touch said guts because GUTS.” It’s comical for me. A photo can only tell so much, let’s share the reality too. Not cynicism, but reality. Because we all know there is so much more behind the photo. There are times a photo truly is sweet and pure, rainbows and butterflies (every photo of my fourth is basically this- he is darling, hysterical, and incredibly photogenic even when he isn’t smiling. It is what it is, y’all, ain’t no shame in it.)
But if we are honest, most are a facade until the truth is shared.
I think back to those home videos and wish someone would have taken each person aside, and had a private interview asking “Tell me, how are truly feeling right now? What is running through your mind? How is your heart? Be honest.” To know how each of us felt in that moment- to understand the thread of sadness running through each of us, the sliver of hope- these were raw and real. Yet we smiled, we ignored, we kept going, we pretended we were fine. It was fine. She was fine.
She wasn’t fine. We weren’t fine. The facade crumbled a few short months later. Our hearts shattered. We didn’t reveal our pent-up tumult until we had lost her. It was too late, we waited too long. The moment passed us by.
Truth, honesty, and vulnerability. No sweet photos needed, no “happy” videos of our own creation. Keep it real, be real. (Sidenote: Oversharing is also a thing, like whoa, just no…) Find or BE a mentor, a sister, a friend, and listen/share gently. Build and encourage one another. BEfriend. Be a friend…it really isn’t complicated. We love driving into our homes, shutting the garage door, then getting on our devices and displaying our highlight reel.
Let’s share our guts- even if we are a bit revolted at the idea, circle around for a bit, dive right in, or have to gingerly pick away at it because GUTS. 😉
Let’s keep our doors open. Let’s caption the photo with truth.
Let’s do it before it’s too late and we miss opportunities.