Feral Family Photos

Audrey Thompson

Recently, my parents had their photograph taken for the church directory. The photos were awful. My mother showed them to me specifically to point out how awful they were. “Look,” she asked me, “would you say that I look more like a criminal or more like I’m just insane?”

“More like a criminal,” I said.

“That’s what I thought,” she agreed.

The next day, when we were visiting Laurel, she showed us her church photos. “They’re pretty bad,” she said. Although the photos were not flattering, no special effort had been made to portray Laurel and Herb as career criminals, whereas Mom’s photo pretty clearly categorized her as a corporate vampire intent upon sucking the last drop of blood out of her hapless underlings. On any Most Wanted post office bulletin board, my parents’ church photograph would stand out. “I wouldn’t trust her with a 3¢ stamp,” I can imagine observers saying to themselves with that marked satisfaction that the uncaught display when scrutinizing photos of the recently arrested.

In itself, the lousiness of the photos is not newsworthy. Probably every family has tons of lousy photos. You can’t indict someone on the basis of a bad photo or Ivan would have been arrested at every border. His driver’s license and passport photos pretty well establish him as the ringleader of numerous international drug cartels. But driver’s license and passport photos are meant to dramatize one’s latent criminal tendencies — or, alternatively, to mock one’s pretensions to non-criminality. My driver’s license photo makes me look like I am about to whip a puppet from my sleeve and start cooing sweet, lamblike nothings in its ear.

Audrey as a devil

Anyway, be that as it may, it’s not the lousiness of the photo that is at issue here. What is at issue is, number one, that it was a church that was passing off this vampire imagery as everyday, neighborly friendliness, and, number two, that my mother expected me to frame it.

“Would you like the 4 x 6 or the 8 x 10?” she asked me.

“Neither,” I said, with a firmness that I don’t usually muster under such circumstances. “I thought we’d already agreed that this is an almost eerily awful photograph.”

“Audrey,” my mother said with a transparently fake attempt at pathos, “I could die at any moment.” If her voice had developed a small tremor at that point, she might have been mildly persuasive, but as it happened she sounded less like a frail grandmother gasping her last breath and more like the daughter of a colonel who brooks no dissent from the ranks. “Are you saying that you would not want this last, living portrait of your father and me that we paid $80.00 for?”

“Yes,” I said. “Whatever possessed you to pay $80.00 for these photos? They are terrible pictures. You said so yourself. If you die tomorrow, I prefer not to have to remember you as a vampire.”

My mother is nothing if not flexible. “Who do you think I can shove them off on?” she asked.

In the end, she gave Dad a copy, recycling a frame that had previously held a supremely unflattering Caterpillar photo. Its sole virtue had been that it had been given to Dad for free. Having already paid for the vampire photos, Dad was sanguine about being given a framed version. There are all kinds of things around the house that he would be hard pressed to explain the value of, but as long as he does not have to pay for a new frame, it is not so bad.

One Christmas when I was visiting my parents in Brazil, Mom gave Dad a carved lion. Dad was not pleased, since he was pretty sure that Mom had spent a lot of money on it. “Marian, what would I want with a carved lion?” he objected.

“I, personally, would love to have a carved lion,” Mom said.

“Oh, well, in that case, you are in luck,” said Dad. “I happen to have one right here that you are welcome to have.”

Having foisted the largest vampire photo on her own husband, Mom then sent 4 x 6 inch copies to Tom, Annika, and Ivan. She always sends Ivan anything that she knows a normal person would throw away. It is not that Ivan is the only non-normal person my mother knows; she knows my brother, after all. But Chuck’s motto is, “If it is not an icon of my youth, it must be thrown away.” He owns four or five lunch boxes, but only one coffee mug. Ivan’s motto, by contrast, is, “if it is important to someone I know or could have known, I will keep it.” We have kind of a lot of junk, most of it sent to Ivan “privately” by my mother.

She sent Ivan two different vampire photos, in an envelope with a printed address label from which my name had conspicuously been excised. “I guess this is just for me,” said Ivan.

“Then it is probably something I want you to throw out at all costs,” I observed.

Normally, when Ivan opens one of these for-your-eyes-only packages from my mother, he clutches it possessively to his bosom. Normally, my mother is sending Ivan some saccharine painting or letter that I concocted in my misbegotten teens, and Ivan clings to it as if it were the last relic of a long-dead saint. He did not feel this way about the photos Mom sent him. “Why did your mother send me these pictures?” he asked. “They look like something out of the Vampires Yearbook.”

“Yes,” I said. “She paid $80.00 for the set, and now she has to distribute the photos in order to get her money’s worth.”

“I see,” said Ivan dubiously. Since he quit smoking, eighty dollars means nothing to him. He wouldn’t blink at shelling out eighty dollars for eight sticks of ginseng gum. Having wasted eighty dollars on photos therefore could scarcely count as a motive for sending out photos that you or I would pay serious blackmail money to suppress.

“Let me take care of those photos,” I said. It is a sign of how awful they were, that Ivan handed over the photos. In the ordinary course of events, Ivan secretes anything that my mother sends him in some underground tomb that I have never found, and that is what she was counting on this time. She does not want the photos herself, naturally enough, but she is determined that someone should be pleased to have them, and Ivan seems like the perfect victim. She assumes, with some warrant, that he is congenitally incapable of throwing anything away. I have a hard time throwing things away myself, except when it comes to vampire photographs. I threw them away.

Mom didn’t actually ask if the photos were still whole, present, and accounted for. She pretended to assume that they were. “I sent Annika and Tom those photos,” she said. “They fought over them.”

“No. they didn’t,” I said. Mom had sent Tom and Annika identical photos. “They fought over the frames,” I told her. Apparently Tom and Annika had not actually noticed the pictures, which is just as well. They are tender children and susceptible to nightmares. I didn’t tell Mom what Barb had said about the studio portraits, which was, “Am I in trouble for something? Why did Mom send my children pictures of their grandmother looking like a criminal? Is this like getting bundles of sticks before Christmas?”

This was in reference to the time shortly before Christmas when Chuck and I were two and five; we were yelling at one another when Saint Nick came banging loudly on the door. As a warning, he left us each a bundle of sticks and coal. After that, we were very, very good, and a week later there was a ring on the doorbell. Outside the door were two spangly, gold cardboard elves with bobbing bearded heads on springs and spherical tummies that you could open up; inside were candies. We were being given a second chance.

Audrey and Chuck Audrey and Chuck
Audrey and Chuck Audrey and Chuck

“No, the photos are not a punishment,” I said. “Annika and Tom got them because Mom paid $80.00 for the photos and she had to recoup her costs by giving the photos to people who would not throw them away. I think she is giving a sheet of four of them to Chuck. Maybe he can frame them all in the same frame.”

Ordinarily, Chuck would have no hesitation in throwing out a bad picture of Mom and Dad, but a whole sheet of bad pictures might meet a different fate. Chuck has unusual ideas about picture framing. Many years ago, Mom went to visit Chuck and Phyl in their new house. While giving Mom the grand tour, Chuck pointed out a nice arrangement of storebought frames next to the fireplace. All the frames featured the slightly faded and out-of-focus pictures that they had been sold with — sentimental pictures of flowery meadows or happy children chasing butterflies or white-haired white folks in rocking chairs. Trying to be tactful, Mom said to Chuck, “A lot of people put their own pictures in the frames they buy, you know.”

“I was going to do that myself,” Chuck agreed, “but then I realized, these pictures are perfect. That’s why they put them in these frames. None of the pictures I have are going to go as perfectly in those frames.”

Over the next few days that Mom stayed with Chuck and Phyl, she would do the dishes every morning after they went off to work. Before she could do the dishes, though, she always had to remove the baby doll head lying in the drain hole. After finishing the dishes, she would carefully put the baby doll head back. When Mom told me this on the phone a few weeks later, I asked her why there had been a baby doll head in the kitchen sink in the first place. “I don’t know,” said Mom.

“How come you didn’t ask?” I wanted to know.

“I didn’t ask,” she said, “because I didn’t think I would understand the answer. Anyone who tells me that he keeps all the pictures that came in the frames because they’re ’perfect’ is not someone whose answer I am going to understand when I ask why there are baby doll heads in the sink.”

The trouble with Mom’s refusal to ask Chuck and Phyllis questions is that it seems to imply that other family members’ answers to questions are more reasonable, more illuminating, more something that someone might understand. I personally have not found this to be true. When Ivan’s brother Kelly sent him boxes of old family papers and photos, Ivan went through them diligently to see what he should keep and what he should throw away. He scrutinized every photograph to see when it was taken, who was in it, and if it was a good picture. He had a very, very large stack of “to keep” and a tiny mound of “to throw away” pictures. At one point he pulled a black and white picture of a little girl out of the box Kelly had sent and said, “I wonder who this is.”

“Does it say anything on the back?” I asked.

“Yes, it says, ’Priscilla?’ with a question mark in my grandmother’s writing, but then she crossed it out,” said Ivan. He carefully added the picture to the to-keep stack.

“Why are you keeping that picture?” I asked.

“It might be somebody I know,” said Ivan.

“It’s not even somebody your grandmother knew,” I pointed out.

Ivan frowned at me. “You are always making me throw things away,” he objected. “You threw away my egg poacher even though I promised to make poached eggs that very same day and you threw away our electric blanket. That was very wrong of you. It wasn’t the blanket’s fault that the wires got switched and you got too hot. You should not have thrown it away; that is capital punishment and I am against capital punishment for electric blankets.” He threw away the photo of the unknown little girl, but he reserved the right to blame me if getting rid of the photo turns out to have been a big mistake.

In Ivan’s view, I have made some terrible, terrible mistakes in throwing things away. I deny that it was a mistake to throw out the egg poacher, however. We had no room for egg poachers and neither of us had ever used the egg poacher. Ivan has never even ordered a poached egg in a restaurant. When I asked him about this, he claimed to only like eggs that he personally had poached in his own egg poacher. This claim is somewhat reminiscent of my father’s stance on cats. When I was growing up, Dad told me that he didn’t like cats; once we were all grown up and had moved away, however, I noticed that he went out of his way to make friends with every cat he met. “I thought you didn’t like cats,” I said to him.

“It’s only my own cats that I don’t like,” he explained. When I asked if he had ever had a cat, he said no, of course not, reminding me that he didn’t like them if they were his own. Similarly, except oppositely, Ivan does not like poached eggs if they are not his own, although to my knowledge he has never actually poached an egg of his own. Whenever I press this argument too far, though, Ivan pulls out his trump card.

“Remember my grandmother’s vases,” he’ll say.

Grandma Florence, Ivan and The Red Car

When Ivan and I started to get interested in Depression glassware, his Grandma Florence gave us a pink Depression glass cookie jar and blue ice cube bowl that she had had since the thirties or forties. Because we loved those, she later gave us two vases from the same era. They were not Depression glass, but they were from the same time period. We pretended to love them but we hated them. They were probably the ugliest vases we had ever seen in our lives, and that is counting the hideous ceramic umbrella stand with purple and orange flowers that Mrs. M. gave me when I was nineteen, saying, “It doesn’t look like you are going to get married, Audrey, so I think I will just give this to you now.”

The Ugly Vase

Ivan and I held onto the vases we had been given for several months, but we were short of space and finally I threw them away. When I told Ivan that I had thrown the two vases away, he was not upset, since he hated them himself. But about six months after I threw out the two hideous vases, we saw some exactly like them at an antique show. They cost eight hundred dollars apiece.

Now, whenever it looks like I might throw something away, Ivan reminds me of the eight-hundred-dollar vases. “It’s not that you threw away my grandmother’s vases that bothers me,” he’ll say in earnest, reasonable tones. “It’s not even that we could have gotten at least $16,000 for those vases — and in those days, that was good money.” (Some of us still think it is good money, even at the actual $1,600 rather than $16,000, but then some of us are not former smokers.) “What bothers me,” Ivan will say, “is that you broke the vases. Someone could be enjoying those vases right now.”

That bothers me too, as a matter of fact, but I do not consider it a knockdown argument in favor of keeping everything that anyone gives us. I do not, for example, consider it an argument in favor of keeping my parents’ church photos. And a happy sign that Ivan himself sees limits to the applicability of the “Remember the Vases” refrain is that he did not apply it to the photos my mother sent him. He did not mention the thousands of dollars that we might have gotten by holding on to the photos or the joy that they might have brought to unknown strangers. On the other hand, he did not specifically commit himself to the wisdom of throwing them away. While it does not seem to him likely that we will regret having thrown the photos away, the fact remains that he was not the one to do the deed. If there are regrets to be had, they will not be his. If it turns out that it was the greatest mistake of my life to throw away those photos, he will later be able to say, in mournful, earnest tones, “Remember the church directory photographs,” whenever I hint that we might, possibly, want to throw something out.


Just as I finished this story, Mom sent Ivan the following note. “If you haven’t thrown out the picture of Tom and me,” she wrote, “you could buy a kind of throne or altar and put it in your study and then invite Audrey down to view something else and make sure she sees it. She will have a fit — she just hates that picture. I wish I had thought of this before.”

This plan of inducing daughterly fits is an interesting phenomenon in itself, and suggests that maternal tenderness often manifests itself in unexpected ways. What is particularly intriguing, though, is Mom’s idea that Ivan can just pop out and buy himself a nice little altar or throne at will, as if the serious shopper will always know where to find these. As it happens, Ivan had no reaction to this part of her letter. He seemed to take it in stride. I suppose that that is not really all that surprising. Probably your ex-smoker can always put his finger on that perfect, elusive altar or throne. It is easier to find that sort of thing when money is no object.


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