Flashing Back

Flashing Back

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Book of Christmas Virtues

Flashing Back

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the memory of my dad taking the annual holiday photo. I carry a mental image of his hairline with the camera blocking his face and the unsnapped case dangling beneath it like the protective gear of a catcher’s mask.

But nothing protected Dad from the hubbub of five kids on Christmas Day. The Christmas commotion clashed with his German temperament, driving him to create order out of the chaos.

So he created the ritual. None of us could eat dinner, or even touch our forks, before he took the holiday picture. His payoff was some peace, if only for a precious few minutes.

“I need quiet,” he commanded, “or else it will take me even longer to set up.”

We rolled our eyes—the only things we could move without disturbing the pose. The focus of his attention was a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex One, purchased when we were stationed in Europe. A manual 35 millimeter camera, it required endless calculations and adjustments before he dared click the shutter. I’m sure it was a dad just like him who inspired some kid to invent the Kodak Instamatic®!

For what seemed like hours leading up to the photo, he made us sit still in our assigned places around the table. He looked through the viewfinder every few seconds. He read—and reread—the instruction booklet. He peered through reading glasses to carefully manipulate the camera’s settings.

And Mom offered us no sympathy.

“Be patient with your father,” she advised. “Someday, when you’re grown up, you’ll thank him for doing this.”

It turns out Mom was right.

Years after leaving home, I pawed through a box in her basement and discovered the Christmas pictures. I looked closely at each one and realized that, instinctively, Dad had almost replicated the poses each year. The changes were so minor that the photos resembled animation cells. I placed them in chronological order, earliest at the bottom, and began to flip through the years.

I notice how the images changed at the sides of the table where a highchair moved in and out of the frame like a ping-pong ball as each toddler grew out of it. Finally, Gretchen, Carolyn, Jan and I were all seated at the table. Seven frames later the high chair moved into place again with the family caboose, Bart. Our heights increased with the years and so did our hairstyles: from pixie, to beehive, to pageboy. We were always in Sunday dress, and Mom’s clothes mirrored the decades.

But little changed at the head of the table.

With no evidence of him dashing to his own spot in front of the camera, Dad sported an every-hair-in-place military crew cut. He always wore a white shirt and a necktie that exactly matched his trousers. His left hand gripped an oversized fork impaling the turkey breast. His right hand held a knife poised to carve. It is a sign of the times when I see a white cord that stretched from a wall socket to Dad’s new electric knife.

It’s all there, captured year after year, as we held our places and our smiles, waiting for the Dad’s diligently preset timer to click our pose.

My life story is told in those photographs, in all that is seen and unseen. And I smile, recalling the adage about what a picture is worth. Thank goodness Dad loved us enough to ignore our groans and snap them.

Kathryn Beisner

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