Family Picture Night

Video, Memory, Family, 10:57
Every year, at the lake, we’d set aside an evening for Family Picture Night. It was tradition and it was mandatory. We’d all wear matching shirts, by color, and if not entirely matching, then color coordinated by the different branches within the family.

Each year we did this, and each year most of us dreaded the task. We were forced to shower (the lake was somewhere where we never had to shower), search the surrounding towns for the correct shirt color (often having to turn an adequately colored shirt inside out to hide its writing), and stand with unflinching smiles for what felt like hours. These photo nights would quickly morph into an endless struggle for the perfect photo of each combination of family members at every possible location in the yard. I’d be shocked to find out that a patch of grass remains on which we hadn’t yet taken a photograph.

This footage depicts the events from the last night we were able to take these photos, the last year we still owned the cabin, and the last time all the family members were still with us or able to return. I don’t know who decided to record this Family Picture Night, but finding the footage was a precious discovery.

The time marked the end of a blissful confidence in our family roles and relationships, roles that were soon to become more chaotic and jumbled with the passing time and changing locations. This land was the mutual ground that connected our lives, and my family would have done anything to keep it that way. I now see the tremendous effort that went into the preservation of these surroundings and its memory. And yet still, it can only be revisited, never quite visited in the same way again.

I found out, 6 years later, that my mother had also gone for a walk immediately before that last Family Picture Night. She had documented every part of the area – the lake, the woods, the broken down shed, the collapsing house of our strange and rarely seen next door neighbors – explaining to no one in particular what this place was all about for us – something, I know, would have been impossible to convey. Perhaps she was reminding herself, as well.

At the time, I was young and preoccupied with school and life in other places; I didn’t quite know what losing the lake would come to mean, nor did I realize there was much more to Family Picture Night than I had previously thought.

Leaving the lake marked leaving the deepest roots of our family, testing whether the bonds would hold when that tangible tie could no longer be physically visited. This place was the background to our pictures that was extremely, painfully, vital to the picture itself.

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