Being Photographed (Flash Nonfiction)

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In the mid-1980s, my grandmother encouraged my brother and mother to accompany her to her church service each Sunday morning, and my older brother and I stretched our imaginations wider than ever in constructing a reason for us not to attend, especially once we both reached double-digit ages. In the fall, the church would invited families to have a portrait taken for the upcoming year’s membership book. For normal families, dressing up on a random Tuesday night and driving to church for a photograph is more than likely a relatively simple feat. My brother and I, however, were unfamiliar with that level of normalcy.

I can remember waiting in line from the middle of the building to where the photographer had set up camp in a partitioned-off segment of a rec room on the west side of the church. This room was usually reserved for adult Bible study meetings (which my mom attended, I’m now convinced, strictly to award herself sixty full minutes of being free from her sons’ constant irritations) and the annual Christmas tree decoration stations led by adult members of the church who had accumulated a seemingly endless amount of pipe cleaners and cotton balls. Any other time, the partition boards were squeezed off to the sides, leaving only long metal coat racks that lined the perimeter of the room. Anyway, while in line, my brother became restless after about seventeen seconds, so, contrary to our mother and grandmother’s wishes to “shush” or “just be still”, he filled the void by creating reasons to make me laugh. No specific joke or comment comes to mind, but I want to say the range varied from an unknown member’s loud outfit or obscene use of perfume to corny puns that a lot of nine-year-olds think are hilarious (e.g. “Steve, I don’t think that jacket suits him.”)  These jokes would build and build as we eased closer to the threshold of the makeshift studio. The photographer was always a bespectacled man who by the time we reached him had begun sweating, draped his blazer over a chair, and kept over-smiling, apparently to negate the stress of his job. Simple instructions such as “Face to the left” or “Chin up” were far more than I could handle by that point as well. Any reference to turning my cheeks forced my brother to remind me that the shaky photographer meant the ones on my face. What should have been about a hundred seconds of standing and smiling toward the camera became nine or ten minutes of me struggling to compose myself and my mother silently developing innovative methods to beat the hell out of us on the walk back to the car. Every year for about half a decade, she rightfully announced it was the last year we were doing pictures.

Last month, in the middle of a stuffy mall, my own family spent two solid hours from the moment we joined the Santa line to when the apathetic teen handed over our incredibly overpriced photograph. I’ll never not think about the church photos when we take professional pictures, and I’m sure if my mom is reading this that she’ll smile and say something about paybacks.

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