Attempts At Adulthood

The Nine Hundred Dollar iPhone Photo

I’m not going to say that we flew down to Florida to get a picture, because we didn’t.  We flew down to Florida to see my grandfather, who is 94-years-old and my son’s only living great-grandparent.  All my own great-grandparents passed away long before I was born, as did my husband’s great-grandparents.  So I’m not saying that we flew down to Florida to take a picture, but I’m admitting we wanted one.  A photograph of four generations, all alive at the same time.  Proof that it had happened.  Me, my son, my father, and his father.

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My grandfather got sick nine months ago.  Up until then he had been more or less fine, just old.  He puttered along, talking to people and pondering things.  Trimming his nosehairs and fixing his glasses with tape when they broke.  He had continued at his hobbies.  Yes, he told a lot of the same stories over and over again.  Yes, he sometimes rambled on about things that didn’t always make sense, but my father does that too.  I do that.

ANOTHER thing that happened nine months ago was that I was about to have a baby for the first time.  And a day or two before I went into labor, my father called and asked if I was OK with his flying down to Florida to see his father.  He felt bad, he said, because he wanted to be there to see the baby, but he would feel worse, he said, if something happened to his father and he wasn’t there.  And I told him, obviously, to go see his father.  That the baby would be here when he got back.

And so he flew to Florida.  I gave birth to the baby.  His own father recovered.  He flew back home and probably either held his grandson or said something like, “Hey, nice work, great baby” or maybe high-fived me– honestly I have no idea what happened for the two weeks after having the baby because I was still bleeding out of my ears wondering whether I had given birth to a baby or been hit in the face by a grenade.  But the point– the point, is that things do not always go exactly as you had planned them.  You assume that you will have this baby and all your nearby family will come to this hospital to greet you and smile and share in your excitement, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

Cut to: Last week.

On the final full day of our three-day trip we are ready to take a picture with my grandfather.  And in my head, I think, this picture is going to be great.  It has to be great because we paid for two $450 round-trip tickets to Tampa so that we could take it.  It has to be great because it is possible this will be the last time I see my grandfather.  It is going to be moving and poignant.  It is going to be well-lit and all of us are going to look spontaneous yet perfectly composed.  We can take it at sunset, while the orange light filters through the trees, the end of the day symbolizing the beauty of the inevitable passage of time.  Our faces will be perfectly imperfect, the camera capturing the sincerity of our innermost thoughts.  The baby and my grandfather will stare into each other’s eyes with an ethereal sort of understanding.  It is a photo that will remain in my family for generations– that my son will keep framed on his desk as he grows older.  The type of photo that Annie Leibovitz would pull from a stack of other, more ordinary photographs, asking, “Who?  Who took this?”

And so, big surprise,  that is not how things went.

We took the photo inside the nursing home because my grandfather was tired and did not really feel like going outside for a photograph.  The baby was dirty because I had let him crawl around outside while playing with his second-cousins and because he is a baby and babies are always dirty.  If you have one, you know this.  The act of wiping dried snot and mashed vegetables off a baby’s face immediately activates neurons in his brain which instruct his body to produce more snot/mash more vegetables into his face.  It is as inevitable as the law of gravity.  The amount of time that a baby’s face is actually clean is so small it has yet to be caught by the fastest shutter speed on the most high-end camera.  It is easier to get a photo of a giant squid.

I had forgotten, also, that I, only two weeks before, had given myself the world’s most terrible haircut and that my father smiles for photos as if he is begrudgingly holding in a bowel movement.  And that my grandfather was not as young as he once was.  Unable to hold the baby on his lap, I held the baby while standing off to the side.    My grandfather sat in his wheelchair and stared straight ahead, unsmiling.  The baby continually moved and looked at people who were not in the same direction as the camera.  My father blinked a lot.  I coughed.  My aunt took pictures with her good camera and with her iPad but apologized later that all the photos on her good camera had accidentally been erased.  I told her not to worry without mentioning that I myself have done that bazillions of times.

And so that evening I look through the photos and almost all of them are blurry.  In the few that are not blurry I am usually blinking or coughing.  In the ones where I look OK, my father looks like he is stoically passing a kidney stone.  In the ones where my father and I look fine, my grandfather looks clinically-depressed.  There are no photos that Annie Leibovitz would pick up, enthusiastically breathless.  There is nothing I would even use as the cover photo for a Snapfish album.  They are all average.  The one photo in which we are not blurry and no one looks completely terrible was taken before we officially started taking photos because none of us was looking at the camera yet.  My father and I are looking down at my grandfather, he is looking up at me, saying something, and the baby is looking off in another direction– most likely at a lamp or another nursing home resident or a ceiling fan.

And yet for some reason, the more I look at the photo, the more it grows on me.  It is not a perfect photo, but I am suddenly realizing that that is fine.  We get so overwhelmed with everything in life being perfect that we forget that nothing is supposed to be perfect.  Photos do not have to be perfect.   In my sister’s “four-generation photo” taken with her own son and my grandfather, my grandfather is cheerfully sporting two black eyes that he obtained while falling down the previous day.  The point of most photos is to say, “I was alive and you were alive, and for a period of time our lives overlapped.  This is what we looked like.”

So this will be the photo that we have and the one that I will show my son when he asks if he ever got to meet his great-grandfather. Maybe my son will keep it in a frame on his desk, but probably not– he will probably have better or more current photos to display.  Maybe he will not even have a desk when he gets older.   I have no idea.  Maybe traditional pictures and photo frames will have become obsolete.  Or maybe he will live so far into the future that we will finally have time machines, in which case he will be able to get in and travel back to November of 2013.   He will watch himself crawling across the plank floors in his dark-blue overalls, pulling himself upright on his great-grandfather’s wheelchair, laughing hysterically as he’s tickled by the wrinkled finger of a 94-year-old man.

He will stand by the door of the time machine, watching us trying to capture it on film, laughing to himself at our bumbling, awkward attempts. And then, for the rest of his life, he will remember having seen it.  When he someday dies, the memory will die with him.  It is sad to think about, but it is also sort of OK.

Nothing lasts forever.  It is nice that it existed at all.

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82 Responses to “The Nine Hundred Dollar iPhone Photo”

  1. Van

    The photo you posted actually follows a classic portraiture technique, in which every person in a scene looks in a unique direction. You’ll see it all the time in Renaissance or Baroque art. You should be super proud of this image, because it follows some great artistic rules.

    • SRP

      Amen, Van! That was my first thought when I saw this photo. You have a real moment here–honest expressions and natural body language. As a professional photographer, this is the type of photo I prefer, especially compared to one where you’re all looking at the camera. Kudos to the photog, and to you and your family!

  2. MamaMgeni

    I am lucky enough to have not one, but TWO four-generations photos. The first was when I was a little girl, with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. The second is of my daughter, myself, my mother, and my grandmother. I’m so happy I have them! And I think about the fact that my daughter may not have the same opportunity when she has kids… (I was 34 when I had her – not a spring chicken like my mother and grandmother!)

  3. AJ

    i just took the same photo with great-grandma, my dad, and our 8 yr old and 6-week old daughters. Nana is nearly 95, it was a big adventure to get her 60 miles to my house to see the newborn, and we spent more time getting her in adn out of the house than we did actually sitting and talking, but its worth it. Great-gramma in West Virgina (we’re in NY) at the top of the mountain got the trip last year. It’s important, even if it’s one single memory my older daughter will have, to make that trip. Great story, and a beautiful photo.

  4. Stephanie

    What a wonderful story…and probably the most beautiful picture I have ever seen. No joke, you can see the bond you all share. Priceless.

  5. Amber

    It’s perfect! I see how you all look related, and the position of everyone’s heads makes a heart! I’d say its easily worth $900. 🙂

  6. Sheri

    I must admit – I cheated and scrolled down to view the photo when I was only about 2 sentences into your post. It gave me goose bumps. It brought tears to my eyes. It’s a photo to be hung on a wall and cherished. It isn’t posed and stuffy. It’s real and it’s absolutely beautiful. It makes me miss my grandfather and wish I had taken more photos. It brings back memories of playing with my cousins at my grandparents’ farm and falling asleep on my grandpa’s lap as he told me grand stories about the cows and pigs in his fields. This photo… THIS photo is surely worthy of receiving awe from Annie Leibovitz herself.

  7. Texas_Mom

    This is a perfect picture BECAUSE it isn’t staged. As a perfectionist with two kids I have realized (finally) that family portraits are always crazy. Sometimes the best shots are taken before anyone can focus. :0)

  8. Lucy

    Oh what a surprise, that made me cry too. It wouldn’t be the first time in the last 24 hours because, you guessed it, I have a newborn baby. It’s very lovely though.

  9. Kristi

    I was fine until those last couple paragraphs. tears. it’s a beautiful memory =)

    • theuglyvolvo

      Thanks 🙂 I actually find I cried a lot less about his passing because I was just so happy we got down there for that last visit.

      • Kathy

        It is all about enjoying the moment when we have it. And you captured it on film. Perfect. Sorry for your loss, it’s never easy to lose those we love.
        Your blog makes me laugh and makes me cry and I have grown children with beautiful families of their own. Please keep sharing your wisdom and humor.

  10. Gretchen

    Oh LORDY! This awesome blog coupled with my Norah Jones Holiday Pandora station had me in TEARS!

    I do so love your writing style. And because I love it so much, I have a love/hate relationship with you. KWIM? 😉

  11. Rosie

    Such a great story! We flew out to California to get my husband’s 5 generation pictures taken. Our daughter made us all first timers, we became parents, and my husband’s mom, grandma and great grandma became grandma, great grandma and great great grandma. I framed up the picture of all 5 of them in my living room very proudly. Wish I could of had that on my side of the family.

  12. Rava

    It’s beautiful and perfect and shows such natural interaction. Thank you for sharing. I wish I had something like this in my own life.

  13. Jersi Jo

    Great story! And even better perspective! Thanks for giving me something to ponder about over this holiday season! Much love!

  14. Karen

    I think the photo is beautiful. It captures each of you interacting with each other instead of just posing. Absolutely beautiful.

  15. Cecilia Nault

    We can’t even get a decent picture of our family of 8. Someones always mad, blinking, fidgeting and them my husband gets upset and starts yelling. It turns into a shit show so we have just about given up on the “group” photo.

    I think your picture is touching and lovely.

  16. Miriam

    What a fantastic photo and story. And your description of your father – priceless. Just discovered your blog – loving it! Can’t wait to read more.

  17. Erin

    We had a very similar experience recently. My grandmother’s (dad’s mom) had been deteriorating for some time. My 11-month-old daughter is the first great grand and she was absolutely ecstatic about it, but we just hadn’t been able to get out to visit yet and she really couldn’t travel. I felt terrible and sent tons of pictures, which she apparently showed to all the nurses and doctors all the time. Through a series of unrelated events, we ended up being able to spend Thanksgiving with that side of the family. My grandmother passed away a few weeks ago and all I can think about is how glad I am that she could meet my daughter. Our pictures our similarly candid and messy, but they exist and they’re beautiful, and that’s all that matters.


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