When I was a kid family portraits meant getting dressed up in our Sabbath finery and heading down to the Thriftway where a company would apparently come in expressly to offer cheap portraits to families that couldn’t normally afford them, or just to people too cheap to get a real one commissioned. A harried woman would shuffle us into a line, usually a long one, of similarly dressed people who were probably also from the poorer section of West Philadelphia, and we would wait our turn.
As the line moved forward we would start fidgeting, because my sister and I were young and getting a picture taken wasn’t very exciting to begin with. Mom and Dad would hush us when we began getting rowdy and remind us that we were representing them when we were out in public. We would sigh, but so quietly they wouldn’t hear us, or they would pretend not to hear us, and stop moving around for a minute. Then when all had calmed down we would get into it again because it was still so boring.
Before too long, though, we would be called to go inside the makeshift studio, which was really just cleverly constructed sheets bisecting a larger room that always seemed to be a storeroom repurposed for the day, or for the week, depending on how long the photo folks would be in town taking our money in exchange for photographs we might or might not like.
I mean, back in those days we didn’t get to see how the photos turned out until they were finally printed, at least two weeks later, when we would come back to the Thriftway to pick up the envelope left for us at the service desk. My parents would hold their breath, obviously hoping that us kids had put on our brightest smiles so they could hang the picture up on our living room wall without feeling embarrassed. And inevitably we would have put on those good smiles because we knew what would happen if we didn’t.
As we got older the back of the Thriftway was replaced by the actual Sears portrait studio, and the other people in line were replaced by folks with actual appointments. The makeshift room was replaced by several photo rooms that were equipped with state-of-the-art cameras and lighting. But none of that changed my mood about it. Taking family portraits was just a waste of my time when I had other, more important, things to do. I would sit there in the chair waiting to say “Cheese!” with a frown on my face. But then the instruction came and a brilliant smile replaced the somber expression.
Two weeks later we would go back to Sears and the pictures would be immaculate. They made us look like a perfect little family, even though by that time Dad was out of the picture — no pun intended. We were immaculately dressed with brilliant smiles on our faces. No one seeing them would guess that it had been such a trying session, but we would always know. In fact, when I look back at those photos that’s what I see in my mind’s eye, not the smartly dressed happy family. I see the chaos that was barely visible underneath the smiles, but I also see the way we eventually dealt with all of that chaos, and it makes everything worth it.
It makes me grateful that we were forced into those studios across the years, because regardless of anything else those memories are important, now more than ever. As I’ve gotten older and I now have a family of my own I know now how precious having physical memories can be because we grow, we change, and things never stay the same, but the pictures remain, a reminder of that time and place.