I was at an outdoor event recently, a lovely afternoon concert in the park. Just in front of where we were sitting was a group that included two young girls, of perhaps four and six years of age. They’d been dressed in identical flimsy, embroidered, Chinese-style tunics and their mother went to great lengths to pose the girls together, arm in arm, smiling, for snap after snap. It made me wonder whether, in years to come, those girls will remember how much they disliked the posing and how they tried to escape, without success, from their mother’s determination to record the happy events. I wondered if any of the pictures where one or both were pulling faces and squirming with irritation and a need to be somewhere else would survive the culling process. I wondered how many times I’d done that to my children, unthinking.
This in turn led me to reflect on whether our family album contained only ‘happy snaps’, or if it provides a range of different moods and expressions, situations and contexts that more accurately reflects our lives. These thoughts sent me scurrying off to find a picture that I’ve always thought portrays something of who I was in my early twenties. The girl in the photo is the person I’ve tended not to show, because she doesn’t fit the persona that the people around me are familiar with. But she’s as real now as she was then.
The photograph was taken at my father’s wedding reception, which took place in the family home less than a year after my mum had died. I was angry and lost and bereft, but had tried my best throughout to behave in a manner appropriate to the proceedings and to make June feel welcome in our family. The inevitable flurry of photographs had been endured, with various people snapping away indiscriminately all afternoon until my face ached from smiling and my heart from trying to behave in a civil manner. The cameras kept pointing my way, at the allegedly happy daughter of the beaming groom. Eventually one of my brothers took the brunt of my displeasure, his camera the last straw. I broke ranks, bared my teeth and growled at him (apparently quite ferociously), after which I was let off the hook and felt a lot better.
When the prints were collected, there I was – growl and all. I kept the photo, even though it’s not pretty, because it portrayed my feelings far more clearly than words can describe and more truly than any other photos taken on the day. Looking at it again today made me think about the kinds of images that tend to be included in family albums. By and large they appear to be the sort that allow people to re-imagine their lives as full of smiles and sunshine, no clouds, no sulks, no bared teeth.
What makes us weed out the sad and bad pictures and keep only the happy smiley ones? Is it social pressure that leads us to believe that our life must be seen and remembered in this way? Do we ever come to a time and place when we can say – ‘hey, hello, there’s more to me, more to my life’?
I recognised that girl when I looked at the photo today. I see her every day when I brush my hair. We’ve come to an accommodation over the years – l don’t hide her away so much and she hardly ever growls anymore. I’m rather glad I didn’t edit her out of my life.