Do not let the wheat and umber curtains fool you. This picture was not taken in the 1970s. It was taken in 1984. I know this not because I can see the time stamp on the back of this Kodak moment – all I have is the .jpeg my cousin, the blond-haired baby on the left, now a grown man, just sent me – but because I have deduced its age by observation. My cousin looks barely one; my brother looks about four; my sister, about two. Any earlier, and I would’ve been wearing the eye patch I wore to correct my lazy eye all of 1983. Any later, and I would’ve had teeth missing. I’m the oldest. The four-eyed girl clutching Grover and a picture book at the center.
We really were that happy.
I wonder what my cousin is thinking about, staring away from the camera to his left, the only one of us who isn’t smiling. I doubt he understood as this photograph was being taken that his father and mother would soon divorce. Probably, he was just learning to associate the large babbling forms who shuffled around him – swooping in, feeding him, changing his diapers – with single-syllable sounds. Shoulder-length curling black hair, warm cinnamon-colored eyes, food, this was Ma. Long brown hair, taller, blue eyes, broad shoulders, perhaps a guitar – my uncle’s image is a blur because I hardly knew him, even though he and my father were college friends – this was Da. Now my cousin is a PhD student in intellectual history. He took a break from writing papers about the roots of 1960s counterculture, tonight, to send me this picture.
I think I know what he had on his mind when he sent it. Last weekend, he and my aunt flew in for my sister’s wedding. I was a bridesmaid. My husband was a groomsman. At the reception, my husband – a graduate student in cultural history – my cousin, and me, stood at the edge of the dance floor and watched my sister dance. Beautiful, lithe, elegantly attired in an ivory lace gown and a low bun at her neck, a pink cocktail someone had gotten for her from the bar in her hand. I have always envied her freedom of spirit, her natural idiosyncrasies, which she flaunts without my self-consciousness. She is the type to dance. I am the type to watch the dancing. I wish we lived closer together. Our mother died of a prolonged illness when I was eighteen and she was fourteen; our father of a prolonged illness four years later. Our brother, the little boy pictured beside me with the giant smile, staring straight at the camera, went between our parents. My cousin spent much of his childhood as an only child, but whenever he visited – from Arizona or California or wherever his mother or father took him – he was with my brother.
I think my mother took this picture. Look at the way my brother is smiling at the camera with his whole mouth, laughing. The muscles in his face tense. This is how a boy smiles at his mother. He used to bite my sister’s toes with that mouth, a similar grin on his face, creeping across the floor after her, dragging his blanket. He could be a real pain. Years later, a couple days before he died, I stumbled into him at the mall, found myself startled at how handsome he was, the height of his cheekbones, his hazel eyes, the breadth of his shoulders, his long brown hair. While he was there, he must’ve purchased the Christmas gift he told me he ordered, but never had a chance to give me. When the bookstore called two weeks after his accident to say his copy of Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book was in, I thought of this moment. How we had hugged, then laughed that we had both put off shopping until the night before Christmas. How I had felt a rush of love for him, despite the fact that he had thrown a shoe at me the year before, and stolen several of my CDs before I moved out. In the artificial light of the mall food court, clasping his suddenly broad shoulders with my hands, I loved him and thought we would be friends.
Thirteen years later, last weekend, on the altar of my sister’s wedding, in a dress that cost too much and stretched too tight across my too-wide hips, staring at the friends and family gathered in the pews of the church, I looked across the altar at my husband and for a moment, only a moment, his image blurred. In his suit and ponytail, his gray-green eyes and long hair, I saw my brother, who stood on the altar after my first wedding to take family pictures. He was born the same year as my husband. He played the same video games. And then I closed my eyes, for a millisecond – blinked – and my sister was walking down the aisle. The spitting image of my mother: thin, with olive skin, dark eyes, somehow birdlike and laughing and fragile, all at once, a nervous smile on her face. But her future father-in-law was walking her down the aisle, this dignified gray-haired man was going to give her away. And despite all the wonderful things this man and his family have done for my sister, my eyes watered, and I couldn’t help but think, no, this is all wrong, it’s not supposed to be him, it’s supposed to be a six-foot-tall man with thick glasses and ragged bright red hair.
The man who went to Woodstock but didn’t remember it.
The man who refused to change those curtains.
But I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and smiled at my sister. Because I already knew what I think my cousin was trying to remind me, tonight, a week later, by sending this picture:
Here they are. They were there. Remember? We brought them with us.