My parents have collected many family portraits beginning in 1949 when it was just them and my oldest sister, Sharon. Then quickly two more daughters—Jackie and Mary. Then Juliann and finally a boy, Joe, Jr. Five children in seven years. A family friend, who later became a professional photographer, came to their house for a family portrait after Joey was born. Then Geralynn and David added to the mix. Seven children in twelve years. Finally when I was born—a surprise seven years after David—my birth coincided with the first color photos in their albums. In every portrait we’re all well-dressed and healthy if not happy—often in a pose.Five years ago, when my mom was still mobile and knew us, we all gathered for family photos at a niece’s wedding. It was a cool evening in late April, and before the dance started, we congregated outside to take pictures in a grassy field near the reception hall. First my five sisters and I got our picture taken together. Then my two brothers with our dad. Some of my parent’s grandchildren milled around the edges as my siblings and I settled in for a group shot.
“Just the original See’s for this one,” Joey said in the direction of grandkids. Someone made a crack about “original” and “extra crispy See’s.”
“What would that make Grandpa? Colonel Sanders?” one kid said.
How many times had we posed this way? We knew exactly how to line up: Joey and David and Mary and me—the tallest—in the back. Julie and Jackie—the smallest—next to our parents in front. Geralynn and Sharon pick a side.
The Original See’s—eight of us and our parents—say cheese. Again.
There was a time in my life, as a naïve teen, when I thought if I ran away I wouldn’t miss anyone in my family. Perhaps every person from a clan as large as mine at some point fantasizes about being an orphan.
At that moment, posing with the Original See’s, I realized what my son does not have as an only child—this core group of people who shared the same womb and toys and bikes, the same two-channel TV, lumpy beds, and one black telephone in the kitchen. We all had the same first grade teacher, Mrs. Florence Krumenauer, and in high school we all learned to type from Sister Paul Marie. Most of us have been teased by a sibling till we cried; all have worn each other’s clothes, eaten off of one another’s plates, said mean or funny or wonderful words about another, cleaned up each other’s dirty dishes or rooms or vomit. We’ve all comforted each other, helped with homework or break-ups or disappointments. We still crack up over the same phrases: just eat an apple—Mom’s alternative to teeth-brushing—or goddamn roundhead—Dad’s version of “you dumb-ass.”
That photo was taken in 2007, four years into my mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Back then my siblings and I couldn’t fathom what might be ahead for us: our own sadness as Mom forgets us and then herself; Dad’s tremendous helplessness as his wife becomes more and more like a child; our stepping up to give Mom constant care at home; our many long-distance or just long late-night phone calls to each other about how we’ll get through. Each of us mourned Mom differently: by visiting her every day or by staying away long periods at a time, by researching and talking about Alzheimer’s constantly or by ignoring that Mom was sick.
Our only constant throughout the past five years has been our family gatherings—formal ones like this wedding and informal ones in Dad’s backyard or around his kitchen table. Most of us show up most of the time. It’s a rare occasion that all eight of us are in the same place at the same time. There’s grilled meat Dad always buys on sale. There’s lots of laughter and beer. There’s always more family photographs.