I’m horrible at taking pictures. I get the light wrong or the children look away or move at just the moment that I meant to capture. I can’t get my phone to work or I accidentally turn it off.
Christmas morning, I took no pictures. We were with my husband’s family and my phone was charging in another room. We were drinking coffee, talking, as the children opened presents. I was proud that we weren’t taking any pictures until everything was opened. There would be no document to prove that it had happened; no digital proof that joy was felt.
We were in Maine for Christmas. It was cold and there was a gaggle of children staying in the house with us. Our two kids and three of their cousins. They were not often still enough to catch a photograph. A couple of nights before the holiday my sister-in-law was sitting on the couch with four of the children, reading to them . Capture this, please, she said to her husband. I looked over at her, the four kids all cross-legged on the couch in a row on either side of her. Her husband didn’t have his phone with him. I’ll get it, I said. I took three photos, but none of them came out well. My sister-in-law had looked up and her eyes bugged out and the kids were looking down and slumping. In real life, they were pretty adorably all listening, but they all listen in different postures, in different ways, many with their heads down. My sister-in-law is beautiful, tall with long dark hair, big dark eyes, and fair skin, but in the photograph, she looked washed out and very tired.
One day, we drove out to sloping snow-covered hills and walked across a small wood bridge that ran over a rushing stream. It was gorgeous. It was shockingly stark and sparkling, whites and greens and browns, with ice stuck to the branches of the trees through which light shone. Our three-year-old’s snow boots were too small and she needed my help walking through the thickness of the snow, and our five-year-old kept hurling herself into the snow and laughing, eating chunks of it, though her pants weren’t waterproof.
The two times I took off my gloves and was able to let go of the three-year-old long enough to take a picture, I failed at capturing it. I took a live Instagram video, my first, and on it, I’m telling my husband I’m taking a video and, feeling immediately embarrassed, I let the camera swoop down accidentally and then quickly turned it off. I took a picture of my husband and our daughters on the bridge, the three of them together, and also posted it on Instagram. My husband is sort of smiling, but his hat is covering his eyes and I didn’t notice this until after. Our five-year-old is hurling herself out of his arms to get back in the snow and the three-year-old looks ready to cry.
I went for long runs the whole time we were in Maine. I ran on the side of the highway, often thinking I should take a picture of the snow and sun and woods. But I don’t stop when I’m running. There were snowplows to look out for, large trucks that splat snow and ice on my legs and side and face. My sister-in-law (another one) loaned me these springs to attach to my shoes so I wouldn’t slip in the snow. I took a picture of this. I was embarrassed that I took a picture, then I showed them to my husband and he said that’s badass, you should Instagram that. He was half joking, but it was sufficient encouragement that I did. Of course, the photograph was all wrong. A close up of my shoe and the rubbery metal thing that I’d attached to it. I’m an ice runner now, guys, I said in the caption. But that did not come close, of course, to holding in it, what it felt like, dodging snowplows, feeling my feet grab hold of then spring off the snow and ice for miles.
A few days before we left for Maine my daughter had a winter festival performance at her Brooklyn elementary school. I got the morning off of work and my mother-in-law came. We got good seats close to the front. Our three-year-old sat on my lap. There were about 200 feet in front of us that slowly filled with children.
Once all the kids sat down, the Pre-K got up for their performance. They sang a song with hand motions and the parents of the pre-K’ers filed in front of the kids seated on the floor to watch. At first, it felt only mildly obtrusive. Then parents started to stand to take video, and the kids behind them started to talk to one another. They looked around, confused. The principal came out. Parents, she said, scolding in the way of principals throughout time eternal, you can’t block the kids from seeing the performance. No one moved as she kept scolding. This is their performance, she said . We are here for them. Still, as the Pre-K parents filed out, the Kindergarten parents filed in front again of all the kids.
I took one picture, of the rows of parents, crouched and on their knees, their iPhones out as the kids started singing. I hardly saw our daughter. I held our three-year-old up in the air so she could try to see her sister. That’s her, I said, pointing vaguely to a small brunette who could have been her if you squinted. Our three-year-old squealed her sister’s name and we sat back down. This is ridiculous, whispered my mother-in-law as she put away her iPhone. She’s from Florida. Isn’t this supposed to be a progressive place, she said.
These are educated people, she said later in one of her descriptions of this scene the next week when we were up in Maine and talking. They looked like people you would like, she said. I posted a picture of the parents with their iPhones with a snarky comment on Instagram in the stead of the video I might have gotten of our daughter singing. These are all the parents taking pictures, I said, but it got hardly any likes.
The day after Christmas I was thinking a lot about what happens outside of scenes, outside of main events, outside of what is captured. I was thinking about all the conversations that go on between couples within large extended families once each has retired to their various rooms shared with kids piled on the floor. The strange blur that is the morning after Christmas. When it’s not time to go home yet, but everyone is ready to not have to hang out together all the time. When the gifts aren’t quite as exciting and the pork fat has congealed on a pan that no one cleaned on the kitchen counter. When everybody comes downstairs braless, bleary-eyed, hungover. When the tree has begun to wilt and one of the toddlers has a cold. When one of the couples appears not to be talking and the wife of another of the couples escapes to run two hours and leaves the rest of the group to parent her kids.
The day after Christmas, we decided to break up our drive back to New York. I texted a dear friend who lives in Boston. Could we stay with you guys? I said. Sure, she said. She has three sons and it had been more than a year since we’d found time to see each other. I emailed another friend of mine right after this. She’s in her eighties and we met in college. She was a retired dentist when we met and she and her husband, a retired physician, took classes at the college where I went and from which they had both graduated decades before.
They studied literature, philosophy, he learned Italian. They took me to dinner a couple times a month the three years after we met. We’d been in touch off and on in the fifteen years since then. They’d met my husband before he was my husband, were invited to our wedding; they sent gifts for our kids when they were born. I sent them my book when it came out with a long note. We’re driving into Boston Thursday, I said to my friend. I’d love to see you both, I said. I’d love for you to finally meet our girls. They’d had some illnesses over the past few years and we’d been to Boston less now that we had children. Now that we had a dog and a seemingly endless array of things to do and to pay for.
I knew from her first sentence. My friends were the sort who had been married so long that they always spoke as “we”. When I described them to my husband I sometimes forgot who had said what or who had taken which class with me. I’m available till 3 on Thursday, H said. I started shaking even before I got to the paragraph that started: A las, I have sad news .
M died in June and I hadn’t known how to tell you, she said. The loneliness doesn’t go away .
I cried sitting on the bed in the room we were sharing with our children, listening to the conversation shift downstairs as the beer and scotch were passed around, as the kids were let stay up an extra hour.
The night before my parents flew in from Florida for my college graduation, knowing only vaguely of the implications of my parents coming, the fights that would arise, the pictures and the posing and my getting angry, H and M took me out. They used to take me to fancy dinners often. I thought of them as fancy then, but they were just grown up; they were separate from the rest of my life. I got more dressed up than I ever did in college for those dinners. When my parents came to town I dressed down to make them uncomfortable because I had a lot of anger toward them then. But for H and M I showered and I brushed my hair and wore clothes that fit. I looked forward to those nights more than nearly any other thing.
We talked together those nights. We talked in ways I very seldom had outside of classrooms in my life then. We talked about philosophy and books. The week before my graduation M read my Honors thesis. It was on Virginia Woolf and Nietzsche, Freud, and death. I was a sad and confused twenty-year-old about to graduate from college. M read it, though. He wrote me a letter about it. They took me out to dinner that night and we talked and talked and talked and they toasted my success. M and H treated me like a thinking, feeling human, a thing no one had done except my professors until then.
We took no pictures that night. I have no pictures of them. After H told me M had died, I found his obituary online and I sat staring at the tiny photograph that accompanied the tribute, shocked by how foreign, and also how familiar, I found the sight of him.
On my graduation day, my mother and my sisters wore sleeveless Lily Pulitzer dresses to an outdoor graduation ceremony in the late New England spring close to freezing drizzle and, though we were all cold and miserable, the pictures my mother took later were lovely and were placed on the mantel in her house. I almost didn’t show up to my graduation breakfast. The next day, I got in a rental car and moved myself to New York.
The first thing H said when she opened the door to us when we got to her house this year, two days after Christmas, was, You look like you! She touched the children’s faces, then we hugged. I knew you would, she said. You look like you, I said.
Later, I wouldn’t be sure, as I tried to recount the whole thing back to my husband. I think that’s what she looked like, I said. She looked so healthy, I said again and again. We hugged and sat in her house a while, talking. She showed me more pictures of M, alone and with their children and grandchildren, smiling, always. I cried a little but not the way I’d worried that I would as we drove toward her. I told her, as she and I drove together to the restaurant, my husband and our kids in the car behind us, that I had loved the sentence in the obituary that said he was a sweet, sweet man. He was, she said. And we both nodded. I cried a little again, wiped my eyes. We got out of the car to find my kids.
Once we got to lunch, we talked just like always. About everything. Her children, my children, gentrification, education, books that we’d been reading, her life, mine, our parents, careers. I never thought to take a picture. I can’t fathom the caption. This is the woman who taught me somehow, without meaning to, how to be a human. This woman and her husband used to take me out to dinner sometimes when I was a fucked up kid. I held it all, though, tightly. I touched her hand a couple of times at lunch and let my husband do most of the parenting. When she helped me put our daughter’s sweater on as we head outside, she held her hand and smiled. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, she said.
When we got to the friends’ house where we were staying I started taking pictures again. She has three small children, who had become hardly recognizable in the time since we had seen them. She has twin toddler boys who ran crazily around the house and her older son sat sweetly with our two girls on the couch and they held hands. I took pictures of them in the bathtub, reading together, eating pancakes, jumping crazily in the bounce house my friend’s husband had bought on sale as a surprise.
I was embarrassed each time I got out my camera. Twice, my friend and I tagged one another in a photograph we posted on the Internet while we stood in the same room. All of this to say, it felt a part of what it was for us to be together, to document it, to try to hold it and to pass it on. But this friend, just like H, is so elemental to my forming. I love her so deeply. I couldn’t tell you, or begin to capture, what it is to have her son sit and hold our daughter’s hand.
She’s exhausted and I’m exhausted and both of us have had hard years. We talked about that only vaguely. We were busy parenting and taking pictures. We had to pick up dog poop, heat up pizza, change a diaper, referee the bounce house. We hugged hard when we got there and again when we left. We talked about a friend who has begun to be medicated for depression, another who is drinking too much, one who lost his job. We talked about the weeks or months when the loneliness of being mothers to young children made it hard to breathe or think or function. We’d mostly only been friends over the Internet this past year. I knew her kids were growing. I knew she lost all of the baby weight. I knew nothing and we stood barefoot in her kitchen both of us, I think, sorry for the time we’d missed of one another’s lives, the time we couldn’t capture, all that was already past.
Lynn Steger Strong will teach a writing workshop here at Catapult—
The Novel Generator: Twelve Weeks to a Full Draft.