We spent Christmas this year at my parents’ house, something we haven’t done in years. One afternoon, in a brief interlude of quiet sandwiched between the more general, convivial chaos, I rummaged through the living room cabinets crammed with family photo albums, pulling out the one I’ve often turned to when I’m home: my early toddler years. I’m not entirely sure what it is that draws me to this particular set of photos, except this time around, perhaps it was because it contains pictures of my second Christmas which seemed somehow sadly sweet in retrospect.I sat cross-legged on the living room floor, the album opened in my lap, and flipped back and forth through the pages, wondering at the distance between then and now; as usual, searching for any signs in my expressions, any gestures that might be significant, that might be indicative of the turmoil of what was to come. Bipolar Disorder, and now Eating Disorders, have been proven to have a genetic basis, in situ from the moment cells start dividing in the womb, so even in that little moppet of a two-year old, the future instability was already germinating.
But what, really, did I expect to see in that black-haired, pig-tailed, white-rabbit (faux) furred kid wailing on the jolly Macy’s Santa’s lap? Was I crying because my Mom and I probably waited in line for three hours for my thirty-second photo op with the official NYC uber-Santa? Or was I already, with some premonition of what was to come in later years, protesting the forced smile, the looking like all’s well for the picture; fighting the man Ho-ho-hoing, hands on my arms, hands on my waist, just knowing I didn’t want to be there but knowing, too, there was nowhere else to run; or was I, like all the other two year olds, merely scared by the stranger with the white beard, the red suit, the booming voice, the swarming minions of elves, and the bright lights? Was I, as usual, reading too much into nothing at all?Next photo: My Mom and I beneath the artificial tree. This tree, for many years, was the source of exasperation, extreme aggravation, and “Fucking shits” between my parents. Old school artificial tree. The trunk came in four separate pieces, the thirty or so limbs had to be inserted in precise ascending size order, and the order was known by little, barely visible smudges of different colored paint on the metal tips of each branch. And then each limb had to have its branches unbent, fanned out, so the artificial tree might look vaguely realistic. The set-up could take hours. It involved a step ladder and drinks of the alcoholic variety. And then strands of lights, with the one bulb that didn’t work, or refused to blink on and off for some unknown (but dire, fire-hazardous reason)—so back and forth to the hardware store. Silver and gold garland draped just so, and boxes and boxes of ornaments (with the usual splintered balls at the bottom of the box, so off to the store to buy more of those).
But I digress, because none of these efforts are visible in the photo except the artificial tree towering over my Mom and me who are seated beneath it—glamorously, I might add. My Mom is seated in a kind of side-saddle pose and I am on her lap. She looks beautiful, dressed in a long, deep V-neck, sparkly, silver dress—my parents must have been hosting a Christmas Eve party for that movie star number; her dark hair in a perfect 1970’s style, straight to the shoulders and then set with curlers at the bottom in an upturn; her lips bright red; her eyes flashing green, happy, expectant; her smile wide, her expression direct, full-on as she gazes at the camera, at my father behind the camera.I am another story altogether. Cute in my Christmas outfit: a red, wool plaid jumper, white turtleneck, bare legs, my diaper (or diaper cover) peeking out between my legs, white socks edged in lace, those sensible, sturdy white walking shoes they used to make toddlers wear, my black hair framing my face in waves. But unlike my Mom, I am not smiling. Not crying this time, but my expression seems anxious, conflicted, even though I am surrounded by a pile of wrapped presents. It’s not like with Santa where I very clearly wanted to escape; here it seems I seem unhappy in all the happiness, in all the sparkle and glitter, in the gold garland dipping over my head, in my role as angelic cherub. Maybe it’s my skewed adult perspective looking at the gap between my Mom lit up for the camera, and my apparent unease.
And then there’s the Day After photo: In a frilly pink dress, an organza bow tied extravagantly around my waist, my hair in two little palm frond pony tails, white tights, teeny-tiny, shiny black Mary Janes, and I am beaming! Once again, under the tree, but sprawled on my belly, intently playing with my brand new Fisher Price Farm set. The red barn, the plastic, white, picket fence surrounding me, the cow and horse grazing on the sequined tree skirt, the little pigs huddled in fluffy fake snow mounds, my hand clenching the horse. Mine! Mine! The farm, the acres, the animals! All mine! But maybe not just about ownership, maybe about enclosure, feeling a part of a world of my own making, a world of my imagination. But then the comparison, again my adult self butting in, the difference between the posed world meant for public display in a frame on the mantel and the unposed world; the difference between myself that always feels a bit lost and alone even when I am with people who love me and people I love, and when I am on my own, peaceably absorbed in my internal, creative world. Of course, that has its costs—I am cut off; I am alone; I am inside that fence.Of course, this is just my retrospective self trying to seek clues, any clues, from my past, however tentative, however specious. A two-year old crying on Santa’s lap is a perfectly normal reaction. A two-year old looking crabby on Christmas Eve because she’s up past her bedtime and is tired of having to sit still for pictures because she’s amped up on Christmas cookie sugar and anticipating Santa’s sleigh-load of toys. A two-year old happily playing beneath the Christmas tree with her brand new, super cool Fisher Price Farm, alone because her baby sister won’t be around for another two years and then she’ll be one of two inside that fence, sharing Cabbage Patch dolls and playing Little House on the Prairie school, and mock church (I was the proto-Feminist priest distributing flattened Wonder Bread communion wafers, she the willing First Communioner).
And now? Our Family Christmas photo is a smorgasbord (thanks to one of Shutterfly’s many options at www.shutterfly.com). No souped up tree in sight, no creepy Santa. Just the four of us, Christopher, Sophia, Alexander, and me, being, well, us. A few snapshots in Greece where we seem to be our happiest (who can resist guaranteed sunshine after eight months of gray rain and snow?). The kids munching on oversized gyros. The kids, heads together beneath a palm tree on the beach, Alexander’s elbow in a loving chokehold around Sophia’s neck, pulling her close, all wide, giggly smiles. Alexander wrapped around me, in a monkey hug. Sophia and Christopher dressed up to the nines, on a father-daughter date.Maybe one day, my kids will search this very same collection of photos seeking some sign, some clue to explain some future twist and turn, to offer some glimmer of understanding. What will Sophia or Alexander see in retrospect? I don’t know. I can’t know. Just like my Mom couldn’t know then what might have been already at work in my genetic code. But she sat beneath the tree with me, trying to make a beautiful, memorable Christmas. And my father, behind that camera. What did he see? If I imagine (and it’s my job as a writer to try to empathize with my characters, to wiggle my way inside their thoughts) what he saw through his camera? His wife and daughter, perhaps the two people he loved best in the world, in a moment of NOW he wanted to capture forever.
All I know is what I know NOW. I am here, still struggling, but loved and needed by the very same people I love and need. My fence gates are wide open and I am no longer alone.