Note: The following is an update to Portraits of Thanksgiving, published in November 2010.
Back in my teens and early twenties, I thought posing for the family Thanksgiving photo was kind of annoying. Just about the time I’d be digging into my carefully allocated favorite foods—while declining any not-so-favorites still circling past me in the hopes I’d free up some precious plate space—the request would be made. “Look up…over here…and smile everybody!” I’d oblige, mid-mouthful, smiling just enough to not mess up my spearing and shoveling momentum. Even when I became a hostess rather than a guest, I’d pause only for a half-seated pose, saying “cheese” then “Who wants more gravy?” mid-route back to the kitchen.
“What’s the big deal?” I wondered silently. “We all know what we look like. Besides, I already have a shoe box full of these different-year-same-dining room-table-type shots.” And then, I found the old Polaroid.
Sometime in early motherhood, when the little girl things I’d taken for granted became vitally important pieces of a legacy I needed to preserve for my own girls, the dusty shoe box turned into a treasured archive. And digging way down to the bottom, we found a real gem—one of my first Thanksgivings captured in black and white.
The year was 1958. Nine of us are seated around my Nana’s table: myself, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle, my sister, my mother, and my grandparents. We’re all in various stages of spooning and serving and planning out second helpings when the camera freezes us for a happy, hectic instant. I am two-and-a-half, perched on a step stool beside my Nana in a frilly dress I still dimly remember. My mother, seated on my other side, has just turned 30. She’s beaming a wide, relaxed smile while her arm is poised like a safety spring to hold me, her youngest, from toppling over and taking the holiday festivities down with me. Nana, looking over her shoulder with a hasty grin, seems to be saying something vintage Nana like: “Hurry up and take the picture before everything gets cold!” The only evidence of my Dad in the portrait is the burst of his flash bulb in the upper corner of the mirror hanging over the table. Below, three generations of heads turning toward the photographer’s light for a few immortal seconds, are reflected in the mirror, too.
Now much older and a potential Nana myself, I’ve stockpiled a hefty share of special Thanksgiving prayers. For family and food, love and well-being. And always before saying them I think back to that old Polaroid print, knowing that it’s in the scanning of the grey setting that my here and now becomes vivid. Because all the adults—the grandparents and parents posing at that Thanksgiving table—are now long gone. After the flash bulb burst and my Dad sat back down, we all went back to our steaming plates, blissfully unaware that most in our precious gathering would, one by one, be leaving the table way too soon. Especially my Mum, who looked up from her holiday feast thinking she was posing for just another snapshot. How could she know she’d already lived two-thirds of her short life?
Forever freeze framed in my memory, the actual photo from 1958 is stashed in my attic archives, somewhere amid the decade-old Big Move to Rangeley larger boxes of unsorted knicky-knacky stuff I’m still saving for a someday project. Someday, I’ll take it out of the shoe box and preserve it like it really deserves, framed for all posterity amid the prints of my daughters’ birthdays, holidays, vacations and everything in between. Someday, sometime mid-February, when I’m finally ready to take up scrap booking to get myself through another Rangeley winter. Meanwhile, I’ll keep focusing on the newer pictures playing on perpetual repeat in my head. Set in a storybook of my own making, it stars me and my beloveds during another year of challenge and loss, of beauty, hope and abundance, of my wildest dreams unfolding before me. This Thanksgiving, as I pause, smile, and really look at my family around the table, I will celebrate being there with them, and how blessed I am that the people I can be close to again are the same like-minded souls I want to be close to…forever. This year, I’ll give special thanks for the medical miracles that touched my tiny corner of Maine. For the days we each got vaccinated with huge grins and waiting winter-white arms. And, especially, for the day I walked away from Maine Medical Center and my angels in scrubs with a brand new hip and a heart full of hope, flipping the page on my fear that the next stop was a wheelchair. Those memories shine like a billboard now, fading out the images of what could have been with the light of newfound freedom. And they pave the way for new ones, like recommencing cousins reunions where we update the 60-year-old Thanksgiving picture and toast to grey hair, grandkids and longevity.
I’ll gladly be sitting still for this year’s picture, aware that it IS a big deal to be another year older around the same old table. And I’ll still never lose sight of my antique Thanksgiving Polaroid. It’s a necessary backdrop, a reminder of my essence and my impermanence, a gentle warning that, in contrast, my here and now is too vibrant for me to dwell on portraits of my life gone by. Spirit willing, it lets me picture myself well into my 80’s surrounded in living color by my family and friends, focused on the blessings right in front of me.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Be blessed.