Sunday, October 27, 2013

a thousand words

I love going through old pictures.  A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.  I think it's more than that.  Pictures speak to me, not always in words, but in song and sensation, too.  Some of them hum quietly, and others break out with a raucous rock song that fires me up.  Sometimes it's too bad that we can't hush them up so that they say only what we want them to.  I've taken my share of those pictures that chatter obnoxiously on forever about things I'd rather not have viewed in mixed company.  I'm thinking of pictures of me on a horrible hair day, caught in history forever, or other ones that, unfortunately, were taken on a swift trip to the trash can.  Other pictures, however, sing in blissful harmony and share a lovely moment in time.  This one, for example, has a sweet story to tell, even though it was created merely because of a random desire to test out the camera by taking a picture of all the kids together.

Trying to gather the kids to take a picture of them all together was always an interesting event.  I have some holiday pictures that tell quite a story, with all of the children dressed up in their nice clothes, some with tears running down their faces, and the others with extra wide smiles as if trying to make up for the ones who are crying, clearly not happy to be sitting there. In this picture, however, they are all smiles.  As I look at this picture I took of my children when I only had four of them, I'm struck by the stories being told here.   I know, saying only four children is a bit of an oxymoron, especially in today's culture with birth control easily available at the drugstore and many families choosing to have only one or two children.  But I say only four because I had three more children after this, and even later, added four more children by marriage.  But all of that is another story.

When I look at this picture now, thirty some years after it was taken, I can see the children's  personalities popping out at me.  Like Willy, the oldest, who is on the left side holding Melissa, the baby.  He is happy to be in charge of something.  He was always the one who was breaking ground for everyone else, always wanted to have just a little more of anything than the other kids.  I'm sure that it was just for reassurance that he hadn't been knocked off his firstborn throne no matter how many kids came along. 

There are some benefits to being the oldest, you know, and he was determined to make the most of them.  He was always the one who would come quietly on the side, turning on the charming smile, and then while I was still smiling back at him, would ask if I had any treats or money he could have.  Nothing made him happier than that.  But of course, he couldn't keep it a secret for long.  He would have to let one of the kids know what he got, and before long, someone else would come find me, wanting the same thing he had gotten.  Kids are so funny.

And then, there is Robert, the next oldest, who was the happiest little guy I
ever saw.  He had a sweet side to him that made me want to squeeze him.  He would melt like a box of chocolates in the sun when I'd look at him and smile, and he would give me back that cute little grin that he has on his face in the picture.  I can still coax it out of him today if I try.  And that same grin would flash in an instant if I even wiggled my hand in the direction of his neck or walked my fingers up his spine.  He was so ticklish that he couldn't even stand the thought of it without breaking into giggles.    

When he was young, he was content to play second fiddle to Willy's position in first chair, but as he got older, he learned that he could get quite a reaction out of Willy if he teased him in just the right way, and armed with that knowledge, the sibling war began.  The first inkling I would have that trouble was brewing was when I'd hear two sets of footsteps thundering down the hallway into the living room as Robert, giggling like crazy, tried to outrun Willy after he had pushed him just that little bit too far.  And then Willy would wreak his revenge with a well-placed punch, and when I scolded him for hitting, he would get so mad because Robert didn't get in trouble, too. 

Some things never change.  When you get the two of them together today, grown as they are, all it takes is for one of them to say just the right thing or look at the other one with a certain fiendish look, and they're off their chairs, wrestling right in the middle of the living room floor or wherever they happen to be.  I just throw my hands up and go in the other room, saying, "If one of you gets hurt, someone else is driving you to the hospital.  I am not in charge anymore!"

Diane, the next one to the right in the picture, was the first girl, and she acted just as much like a firstborn as Willy did.  It was no wonder that they butted heads constantly.  Even at two-and-a-half, she always tried to do things the right way, and I think it was important to her to have things work the way they should.  Her earnest efforts to manage everything perfectly tugged at my heartstrings.  Diane loved to know how things should be, what the rules were, and what people were supposed to be doing because then she could tell the other kids what they were supposed to be doing, and she'd tell me when they did something they weren't supposed to be doing.  She didn't like surprises; she like to know exactly what to expect and when to expect it.  In this picture, you can see some of the seriousness in her eyes, even though a half smile is quirking up one side of her mouth. 

When I told them to scoot in closer to each other so I could make sure they all got into the picture, she flung her hand up around Robert's shoulder so she could snuggle him a little closer.  Robert kept his hands firmly folded together.  Maybe he didn't know which way to scoot to get closer because if he would have scooted in Willy's direction, he would have scooted away from Diane, and vice versa. Or maybe he figured it wasn't his job to scoot because he was already as much in the middle as he could be.  When he was faced with a choice where both options made sense, sometimes he chose something in between that would give a nod to both choices.  He liked to follow his own logic, and if something made sense to him, there was no way you were going to convince him otherwise.  Thus, his posture, even when Diane was trying to get him to come nearer to her. 

Melissa was only about six months old here, but she was another happy-go-lucky one.  The only time she cried was when she was hungry or tired.  Her hair had a mind of its own, growing every which way it could, even straight up, flopping over when it got too long.  The little grin you see here reflected her sunny personality already at this age.  The novelty of having a baby sister hadn't worn off yet, but as they got older, there was some rivalry going on, more so on Diane's part, I think, as she tried to cope with not being the youngest and the center of attention anymore. 

Melissa was more even tempered than Diane was, and the age difference made it more apparent.  Diane was going through what is fondly called "The Terrible Twos," but Melissa was still in the stage where she didn't get into much.  She couldn't.  She wasn't even crawling at that age.  And she was usually happy just finding a toy on the floor she could play with.  Her smile matches the smiles of the other kids, and it reminds me of the innocence of childhood and the simplicity of daily life with children.  There are no world records that can measure this kind of success; you can see their happiness on their faces.

But even more than the children and the fortunate serendipity of catching them all with a smile on their faces, the rest of the picture tells the rest of the story.  Our couch reflected the wear and tear that four busy babies had inflicted on it. We bought that couch after Robert was born, and already, it had started to fray.  The welted edge coming loose from the cushion next to Diane tells about the constant push and pull on the couch cushions that was a daily occurrence in our house.  The cushions came off the couch to make a fort, and then got laid down to soften the floor when the kids did somersaults across the living room.  One of the kids would lay on the base of the couch bed, and the other kids piled the cushions and then themselves on top of the unlucky one who had laid down there.  

The reflection of the flash on the window reveals the many fingerprints from the children from when they stood on the couch, poking at the window in an effort to point out something outside, or sometimes, just to bang on the window and hear the noise as the two windows clanked together.  I can't count the number of times I noticed the windows were like that.  Sometimes I scurried off to find a cloth to clean them with, but probably more often, I sighed, thought about washing them, and then decided that whatever I was doing at the time was more important.  When the kids were little, the work was never all the way done, and the house never stayed clean for long.