Fiction:

Picture-Perfect Christmas

by Don Smurthwaite

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Close your eyes, open your mouth, look as goofy as you can—it’s time for the annual family photo.

All was quiet in the Andrews household one November evening when the chemistry of calamity began to bubble.

It was innocent at first—just a minor commotion in the basement. Mom, who was writing a letter at a desk in the living room, put her pen down and anxiously looked toward the basement door. Lucy, my ninth-grade sister, pulled off her headphones. Tyler, my six-year-old brother, stopped playing with his toy cars and looked worried.

“Mom,” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm, “is Dad … is he … well, you know, is he doing what I think he is doing?”

“I think so, Matt.”

“You’ve got to make him stop!” Lucy hissed desperately. “Doesn’t he know how this bothers us? I don’t want to go through all this again.”

“We’ve got to support him. I know it’s hard on all of us, but at times like these, we need to remember that we’re a family and we stick together. Your father is a good man. He just has a quirk or two, like everyone else,” Mom said slowly.

Just then, Dad burst through the doorway from the basement, a triumphant grin curling across his face. Around his neck was a camera. In one hand, he carried a tripod, in the other, his gadget bag filled with photographic filters, lenses, and film.

“I found all the gear! How about this Saturday for the family Christmas card photo?” he boomed. “Trust me. This will be the best one yet. I can feel it. What do you think?”

None of us said a word. We knew from experience that another chapter in the Andrews Family Christmas Card Catastrophe was about to be written.

Why couldn’t we be like other families when it comes to Christmas cards? Why couldn’t we actually go to a store and buy a box of cards with a drawing of a snowy forest and a sleigh filled with happy people swooshing across the countryside toward grandmother’s house, and a nice, simple message such as “Merry Christmas” scrawled on the inside? Why did we all have to huddle together and watch Dad fumble with his tripod, set the timer on the camera, and scramble back to join us before the camera clicked?

“Well, I’m sure that one was terrific, but we’ll take a few more to make sure we get a really great one,” Dad always says after the camera fires. Then we repeat the whole process over and over.

One year we went through almost two boxes of film before Dad was satisfied. Thirty-four times we had to stand up straight, say “cheese,” or “pizza” and then smile. When we got the photos back, someone looked awful in 26 of them, five were out of focus, and in three others, Dad didn’t quite get into the picture in time and all you could see was his back. We went with one of the out-of-focus shots that year, which sort of symbolizes the whole family photo ritual.

We’ve threatened mutiny. “We don’t want to do this, Dad. We’re not going to this year,” we’d say.

“But our friends tell us how much they enjoy our Christmas cards,” Dad says defensively. “They’d miss our family photo if we didn’t send it.”

Can’t argue with that. We’re probably the best Christmas entertainment around. “Has the Andrews family Christmas card come yet?” people around the city probably ask each December. “We could use a laugh.”

Lucy slipped into my room. “Thinking about the Christmas photos?” she asked.

“Yeah. Our annual collision with disaster.”

“Remember the year Dad wanted our photo taken in the mountains? He thought a background of snow and pine trees would be perfect.”

I remembered. The day we headed to the mountains, a full-scale blizzard was blowing in. The temperature was about 12 degrees, and our car slid off the road on the way home. If you look closely at the photo from that year, you can see the blue tinge to our lips, as we shivered in front of the camera.

“The year we almost died for the Christmas photo,” Lucy recalled glumly.

“That wasn’t as bad as the year we wore Santa hats and pajamas,” I said.

“A horror show,” Lucy agreed.

Actually, it was our pressed pajamas and Santa hats. Mom decided to starch and iron all our pajamas and the effect was one of my older brother, Michael, Lucy, and me (Tyler wasn’t born yet) standing stiffly at attention in our cardboard nightwear.

“Cute, Matt. You looked pretty awesome in your fire truck jammies,” teased Nick Flander, who until that moment had been my best friend.

The list of disasters is long. One year we all looked fine, except for Lucy, who had her eyes closed and mouth wide open. Or the Christmas when we used a photo from our vacation at the beach, all of us in our swimming suits.

“I thought it would be different. Kind of cute,” Dad explained.

“Beach shots don’t cut it in December,” groaned Michael that year. At least this year he’s on a mission in Great Britain and mercifully out of reach of even the longest of my Dad’s lenses.

“Is there any way out?” Lucy asked sadly.

“I don’t think so. Pray for a miracle,” I answered. “It’s our only hope.”

It was Tyler who boosted my faith in divine intervention a couple of nights later. I was upstairs, deep into a college hoops game, when he came in.

“Can we talk, Matt?”

“Always. Trouble with homework? Depressed about the ozone layer? Need some advice about girls?”

“No, I was thinking about Christmas cards.”

That got my attention. “What about them?”

Tyler sighed. “Michael.”

The light bulb that occasionally doubles as my brain flickered to life. “Yeah. Michael. He won’t be in the picture this year. Doesn’t seem right, does it, bud?”

“Nope.”

I was sensing a good angle, one that would end our hopeless holiday tradition. “I’ll talk with Dad, as soon as I catch him in a good mood, like right after he eats dessert.”

Tyler looked a little happier. And I was feeling pretty good too. A foolish tradition of my father’s was about to come to a screeching halt. Now all I had to do was convince Dad that without Michael in the picture, we weren’t quite a family.

We have a spare bedroom in our house that through the years has evolved into the music room, the library, the den, and the sewing room. When Dad is doing some serious vegging out, he heads up there, which is what he did an hour after dinner the following night. The timing felt right. I gave Tyler a thumbs up, then trudged up the stairs. Dad was sitting in an old chair, listening to ancient music from the ’70s.

“Welcome to the inner sanctum,” he greeted me, sounding fairly relaxed for a parent.

“Hi, Dad.” My strategy was simple: link this all up to Tyler. That way if Dad got ticked, I just tell him it’s all his last-born child’s idea, and I skate home free, since parents hardly ever get upset with the baby of the family. “Dad, can we talk about Tyler for a second?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“He’s worried about the Christmas card. He doesn’t think we should have a family picture this year because Michael is in London.” Then, feeling a surge of nobility, I lowered my voice and quietly said, “I kind of agree with him, Dad.”

Dad sat up in his chair. “You kids don’t really like the idea of a family photo, do you?”

“I think we’d like to try something else, something more contemporary. Like what other families do.”

He looked serious. Very serious. “Could be that I’ve had my blinders on,” he said slowly. “I’m not the best photographer in the world. I know that. I always thought the cards were kind of cute. Maybe it wasn’t the picture itself, just that we always were together in the photo. I suppose things change.”

This was too easy. “Change is good, Dad,” I reminded him, going for the jugular. “I think it says so in the Old Testament. Or Brigham Young said something like that.”

He took off his glasses and rubbed his chin. “Still …”

The word still made me nervous. If there is one word that throws fear into the lives of teenagers everywhere, it is still when a parent is on the verge of making a wise and favorable decision. In this case, it signaled that Dad had not been totally swayed by my logic and eloquence. The sweet feeling of victory was slipping through my grasp.

“Still,” he repeated, and I felt doom encircling me, “let’s try one more year, at least. Michael may need it. Next year, we’ll buy boxed cards if you kids don’t want the family photo. Can you live with that, Matt?”

Partial victory, at least. One more year, then the family Christmas photo would be history.

“Okay, Dad. One more year.”

“We’ll take care of it on Saturday then.”

“But not in the mountains.”

“No, not in the mountains. I’ve got somewhere special planned.”

I didn’t even ask where. I wanted to hurry out of the room and give the news to Tyler and Lucy, before he could change his mind.

In our front yard is an old oak tree, and since we’d had a mild autumn, some of the leaves were still hanging from it. When I finally got up on Saturday and made my way downstairs, I was startled to see the tripod set up underneath the oak’s long, graceful branches. Dad’s special place was right at home. An hour later, we stood under the tree while he fiddled with his camera and made all the final adjustments.

“I hope nobody sees us out here,” Lucy whispered.

“Better than being in a blizzard,” I replied.

“Okay, everyone, straighten up. Everything is set. Here I come!” Dad said exuberantly. “Now one, two, three, everyone say, CHEESE!”

What can I say? The photo was great. It was perfect. Against all odds, defying all Andrews family tradition, Dad managed to get us in focus with our eyes open, and all of us looking natural and happy. Set against the oak tree, with our red and green sweaters and Tyler’s stocking cap, we managed to look right in step with the season.

“Guess it was bound to happen some year,” Dad mumbled, looking over the photos in an unconvincing attempt to sound humble.

“Miracles still do happen,” Mom chimed in.

“Can we send this to Michael? I think he’ll like it even if he isn’t in it,” Tyler said.

“Michael will get the very first one,” Mom promised.

We didn’t have long to wait before hearing Michael’s opinion about the Christmas card. Ten days before Christmas, a letter arrived. Mom tore it open as soon as she came in from the mailbox.

Dear Mom, Dad, Matt, Lucy, and Tyler,

I can’t tell you how neat it was to see the Christmas card photo. It looked great, even if I wasn’t part of it. Maybe I’m the reason they never seemed to turn out very well!

We’d had a rough day. It was dark, windy, and cold, and we didn’t have much luck with the work. We had so many doors slammed in our faces that my companion and I joked about needing plastic surgery to straighten out our noses. Anyway, we picked up our mail at the post after lunch, and I jammed your letter into my overcoat pocket.

It was on the bus that I opened the letter. When I saw you standing in front of the tree in our yard, I started to giggle. A woman sitting across the aisle said something about how I must be reading a nice letter. I showed her the card, and she was impressed by the photo. One thing led to another, and we’re going by her home to drop off a Book of Mormon tomorrow. Who knows if anything ever comes of it, but it wouldn’t have happened if a certain photo of a good-looking family hadn’t appeared in the mail.

Mom set down Michael’s letter. “Maybe we should try the photo again next year.”

Nobody disagreed. “But no train jammies,” I said. “I draw the line there.”

“No pajamas, Matt,” Dad nodded. “Same deal though. If the photo isn’t acceptable to everyone, we won’t use it. We’ll work hard to make it a decent picture.”

That evening, I walked into the spare room. Dad was on the floor, leafing through the family Christmas photo album. He flipped to the first page. “Look at this, Matt. See something?”

I squinted at the picture, faded after more than 20 years. “You and Mom. In front of your old car.”

“What else?”

“Well, Mom had long hair, and you had more hair …”

“Anything else?”

I studied the photo. Two people. My parents, soon after they were married. The first Andrews family Christmas card. No children back then. A long way from our family as it was today.

Or was it?

Whether it was two Andrews, six Andrews, or just five Andrews with one on a mission, it was still our family. The Christmas photo was about tradition, togetherness, the season of the year, and the way we celebrate it, and not so much the photo itself. This was a history of our family, a year at a time, right at our fingertips. An occasional brush with frostbite and teasing from our friends seemed a small price to pay for the treasure at hand. We would look through these photos someday and all laugh or cry, watching our family change from year to year. Someone would notice Michael was missing from this year’s photo and certainly say, “Oh, that was the year he was on his mission. Whatever happened to the woman he met on the bus?” What great Christmas memories.

“See anything else?” my father gently asked.

“What I see is a family, no matter how many people are there. I see a lot of what Christmas is about.”

And as I said so, for the first time, I got the distinct feeling that I was not looking at just a photo but seeing the whole picture.

Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh