Snap Judgement: A Holiday Card Photo Dilemma

Filed under: Divorce & Custody, Siblings, Single Parenting, Empty Nest, Opinions, Relationships

The author, third from left, and his clan win The Happiest Family photo contest in 1957. Credit: Davega Stores

My father was always taking pictures. Still photos, movies, he had to have all the latest equipment. We were always being posed for just one more shot. Going through his boxes not long after he died, I found a reel of Super-8 millimeter sound film he'd taken of my bar mitzvah. Well, not my real bar mitzvah (no cameras in the temple, please) but a recreation of it in our basement.

When I married Leslie in 1988, I inherited the role of family photographer. Meaning, among other things, that, like my father, I'm missing from most of our family photographs.

The dust-covered boxes of slides and negatives have mostly been replaced by iPhotos. Meaning I have thousands of pictures that are unsorted, uncatalogued and rarely looked at. Like my dad, I still manage to annoy my kids by taking pictures of them whenever I can.

On the last weekend of August, we drove them, Emily and Nick, from home in New York City to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my son was to begin his freshman year of college. Leslie and I, in the front seats of the rented SUV, had signed our separation agreement and filed for divorce just a few weeks earlier.

We didn't speak very much.

The two kids sat in the back with Nick's MacBook Pro watching movies and old episodes of "The Office" that they seemed to know by heart. Earbuds cut them off from us; an added buffer was provided by the satellite radio I'd set to the jazz, blues, classical, classic rock, folk and Sinatra channels, and which I surfed impatiently.

It felt like a demilitarized zone on wheels.

We stopped overnight in Cleveland, at the home of my brother Ed and his wife, Sue, their suburban place big enough to provide separate bedrooms for Leslie and me. Emily and Nick shared a room, as they like to do, because they tend to stay up all night watching, well, movies and old episodes of "The Office."

We retired early, and the next morning, after a late breakfast, I cajoled the kids into letting me take some pictures in the lush backyard before heading off for the last few hours of the drive. It was not the send-off any of us had imagined, for we all seemed keenly aware that the place Nick would be coming home to on vacations and breaks was never to be the same again.

Some of our closest friends were shocked when we announced that were splitting up. They're still shocked. Leslie and I had hosted memorable dinner parties and reared children who took pleasure in family rituals, family vacations, family meals. We'd put on, in the inimitable words of Ed Sullivan, a really good shoe.

Bennetts-Gerard Family holiday card, 2003. Credit: Jeremy Gerard

"I have every one of your Christmas cards," several friends said, their voices tinged with disbelief.

Yes, the Christmas card. It was just Emily for the first three years, and then the two of them -- never the four of us. It was always a holiday picture -- no one ever got a family Christmas card with our kids on horses at a dude ranch in July. They were in outfits befitting the season, usually red and green, almost always with snow.

People tended to keep those holiday pictures of the Bennetts-Gerard kids. "We're part of a perfect family," they advertised.

When I was 5, my mother, father, brothers and I drove to the opening of a new department store in a nearby town. They were taking pictures of every family, and that night, while my parents were out, we got a phone call telling us that we'd won the Davega Stores' Happy Family Contest. As the Happiest Family, we were entitled to $100 worth of free stuff, which in1957 was quite a windfall. My brothers and I posted signs all over the house telling my parents we'd been named the Happiest Family, which of course we weren't and never had been. I learned early on that, contrary to the popular notion, at least in the era before PhotoShop, pictures often lie.

Now, on the clear bright morning of that Sunday in Cleveland, when the summer heat was first showing signs of blowing away in autumn breezes, Em and Nick posed in in my big brother's tidy backyard. One particular photo haunts me: the light is golden, the greens are vibrant and the two of them look a little distant, as though their minds are focused elsewhere. Certainly not on Christmas morning in a living room on Riverside Drive crowded with a huge tree and stockings and dozens of packages waiting to be opened.

I believe that's the picture I'm going to send out this year.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.