Sunday, December 21, 2014

The annual family holiday portrait: bloody nose edition

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on Please check out the site.

As we drove toward the oversize closet in the department store, fancifully called a portrait studio, my wife and I briefed our three sons.

No fighting, we said. No goofy faces. And no horseplay, a word that has been ready to roll in my frontal lobe since having multiple kids.

Given enough reminders, and sometimes bribes, the boys usually behave well. But the window of opportunity is small for the annual family photo, which goes in an album and gets sent out with Christmas cards. (Just so you know, we don’t include one of those obnoxious holiday brag letters. I think the photo clearly shows that my kids have genius IQs and are working on a cure for cancer.)

My wife and I were part of annual family portraits growing up, and we’ve continued the tradition despite living in the photo-saturated digital age. It’s nice to have one family portrait that serves as a sort of yearly steppingstone through our memories. My wife looks at the portraits from her childhood and can remember, through haircuts, clothing, smirks and smiles, all kinds of things that were going on then. I can do the same, and also pinpoint the start of the awkward years of my childhood, which have blended seamlessly into awkward years of adulthood.

* * *

My kids don’t like posing for the photo, so the clock is ticking when we walk into the studio. The goal is a photo in which everyone is smiling and looking great. But I’ll settle for a photo in which most of us are smiling, or at least not smirking, or at least looking toward the camera, or at least not snapped in a mid-blink look of intoxication.

As time passes during the photo session, I lower my standards. “Just take the picture,” I telepathically message the photographer as he or she moves us around, tries different poses and fiddles with the lights or the backdrop. Forget the attempts at perfection. Just … (smiling through gritted teeth) … take the picture.

If you don’t take the picture in the first 10 minutes, it’s like the clock striking midnight on Cinderella. Our 12-year-old’s smile goes from sweet and natural to forced and plastic. My 9-year-old’s smile and dimple will morph into a look of surprise or “what’s that smell?” My 6-year-old, generally Mr. Photogenic, can lock into this intense stare in which he appears to be trying to melt the camera. They all start looking like malfunctioning puppets, and I probably look worse.

I looked worst of all this year when the photographer, in a burst of creativity, suggested that my wife jump on my back for a photo. I thought the photographer was joking, especially since the studio was already behind schedule, as portrait studios always seem to be. Through the door to the waiting area, I heard a baby crying, getting warmed up for his or her shining/torturous moment in the studio.

As my wife jumped on my back for the piggyback photo, I’m sure my kids were thinking, wait a second, isn’t that horseplay? So … are we now allowed to jump on each other’s backs? Can we spin around on the stool? Pull down the backdrop?

* * *
Fortunately, the kids held off on the horseplay until we left the studio. We ended up with a family portrait that is pretty good, and as far as accurately freezing a moment in time, it’s close to perfection.

Look closely and you’ll see, on my 6-year-old’s red sweater, a small dark spot. What’s that from? Well, on the way to the portrait studio, here’s what Nathan called out from the middle of the minivan:

“I’ve got a bloody nose!”

Of course he did. There had been no bloody noses in several months, despite a considerable amount of horseplay. And now, a few miles from our annual visit to the oversized closet in the department store, Nathan was looking up, sniffling and looking like a boxer who’d absorbed a hard jab.

The bleeding stopped quickly, and amazingly, Nathan cleaned up nicely for the photo. It could’ve been much worse. The spot is barely noticeable. And you know, I’m glad that the spot is at least a little noticeable.

Now our small Christmas miracle is frozen in time forever.

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