On a book revisions day, I allow myself one television show per afternoon — 45 minutes of mindlessness while I eat my turkey sandwich with lettuce and red onion and spicy mustard. (Sigh. My life has become predictable and a little sad in its summer monotony.) Lately, I discovered Brothers & Sisters is available on Instant Netflix, so I’ve started watching the series from the beginning, yelling at the characters when they make unwise decisions. I know with the certainty of a regular watcher that things will not turned out as planned.
On a side note, my friend Melissa calls Brothers & Sisters, appropriately, Incestuous Siblings. Strangely, lots of pseudo-interbreeding, all supervised by Sally Field as Nora Walker.
One of my favorite things about the show is the artlessly cluttered interiors. (Maybe I should add “set designer” to my list of shadow careers? I could spend a few weeks locating the right coffee table for Nora Walker! Something that screams uptight mother with a dash of California wine country.) I particularly love the main staircase in Nora’s house, lined with photos of the Walker clan — a portrait in miniature of the entire series, as that clan that keeps growing as the family owns and disowns sundry illegitimate children.
Inspired by Nora’s staircase, I’ve been considering creating my own wall of family photos. I always love visiting a home that has a wall or hallway dedicated to snapshots of sunburned brothers on the beach, babies crying on Santa’s lap, 50th wedding anniversary parties. I haven’t lived near my extended or even immediate family for years, and maybe this pull toward documenting my history of brothers and parents and grandparents and cousins is some sort of compensation mediated through interior decorating. Or maybe it’s a way to procrastinate.
In any case, the project might take awhile, in part because I have to find an appropriate wall. Danny and I do, after all, live in an apartment. No staircase, unfortunately. And because space is limited, I want to choose photographs that say something interesting about my family. Because the Fords and the Smiths — we have pizazz!
I’ve decided on a few already. (I’ve included them as a slideshow at the end of this post.) I prefer action shots or informal portraits to the posed variety, although certainly a few of the latter will make it into the mix. Currently making the cut: Mom pulling my brother, Todd, and me (in my strawberry snowsuit!) on a sled through the iced-over streets of Illinois. I think it’s a great photo, but I love it mostly because it includes so many props of my childhood, objects that recall an entire constellation of memories and sensations: that rickety wooden sled, my brother’s knit hat, my mom’s snow boots. While I consider myself a native North Carolinian now, it’s good to remind myself of the often snowy landscape of my elementary school years in the midwest.
And then there’s a photo of Danny’s grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Sterling, cradling his daughter and Danny’s mother, Martha, and flanked Phyllis and Lynn, Danny’s aunts. I love the sense of a posed photo gone a little imperfect: the striking father’s face squared at the camera and the crying profile of baby Martha. The photograph is also startling because Danny so resembles his grandfather, especially when I see a picture of Philip in uniform. When Danny was born, his father, Bert, took one look at his new son’s chin and remarked, “The colonel has a say in everything.”
That’s one of the purposes of the wall of family snapshots, really — to display a sort of photo puzzle for yourself and your guests, a collage of images where you can locate yourself amid all of those familiar noses and ears and eyes. I love the photo of my mom with my brother Matt, in part because she both looks so familiar — herself and me — and because I”ve surpassed her in that photo. I grew past my mom. And my Dad with a flat-top haircut is just… well… irresistible. My grandma had this photo of him hanging in her bedroom.
While I love the older photographs, I need a few newer snapshots. I plan to hang a favorite picture of my nephew Andrew, taken on my dad’s birthday a few years ago. It’s rare to catch a really genuine smile in a photo, and this one reminds me of Andrew really having fun, not hamming for a camera. (Don’t you kind of want to squeeze him? I might be biased, of course. I usually want to squeeze him.) It’s strange to think that, in my little solar system of the Ford family, he’ll be the oldest grandchild. I’m one of the youngest in my generation, and I remember many summers in Maryland admiring how grown-up and sophisticated my cousins seemed.
And then, of course, pictures of my current little Houston-based family. Danny in Army uniform, looking out a helicopter window. Standing at the front of the church after our wedding.
Of course, while tracing faces — finding the resemblances among all of those generations — allows you to see the continuity of your history and mark the moment when your tight-knit clan finds someone new. An exciting hiccup of brunette, maybe, among that crowd of redheads.