Dressed in our Sunday best my family strikes a pose, targets of a digital camera in the trigger-happy fingers of my mother. It is an uncomplicated scenario: aim, smile, click, but a lens focused on the likes of us would sooner crack in two than take a decent picture. We now forgo the studio after three years of overpaying for an amateur photographer to crowd us together on a crate in front of a beige muslin background, trying to convince us that the third shot was actually quite good and that maybe, could we please, just settle for all being visible and take our side show out the door so she can get some lunch.
This is my fifth year of implementing the annual family portrait. Every November, I am amazed at how no time seems to have passed since we last gathered together with pinches, prods, and gritted teeth to capture in print our 365 days worth of growth. In my totally unbiased opinion, all my children have stunning smiles. Watching joy spread from their dimpled chins, through pink chubby cheeks, scrunched up noses, and into clear, glassy eyes is like beholding a crimson sunset, you can’t pass it by without taking just a little bit of wonder with you. Spontaneity is key, I have learned, for capturing these unselfconscious expressions. As soon as we sit and say “cheese,” a dead in the eyes, canned, laugh track version of happiness is plastered over the authentic faces of merriment I am so in love with.
I can’t help but giggle when looking at the pictures of Christmas past. Only those present, counting to ten for patience and begging for cooperation, can see the truth behind the photo. My seemingly innocuous hand on the elbow of my son reveals, upon further inspection, white knuckled gripping. Troy’s eyes so sweet and proud also reflect, just beyond the surface, a definite edge of frustration, and I can practically hear the echoes of whining drifting from the silver frame and into my nostalgic ears. I keep the pictures layered, each year on top of the next. Flipping through them is like entering a time machine, within seconds infants are added, inches multiply, baby fat diminishes, and maturity marks the passage of time with subtle wrinkling and subdued faces, every day a little more accepting of the unpredictability synonymous with parenthood.
So why do I do it? It’s a legitimate question. Why do I insist on pushing through the grumbling and the dozen or so outtakes of Priscilla pouting, Benjamin wagging his tongue, Elijah’s frozen toothy grin, and Mary, focusing in on everything but the camera in front of us, all for one, not too horrible picture of my family? Perhaps it is for the same reason that I stay up late on December 5th, wrapping up $5.00 gifts for each of the kids and putting them in shoes filled with carrots they have left by the door for St. Nicholas to drop goodies in. Why I myself eat most of the carrots, leaving just a nub so it looks like the donkey carrying the kindly Saint ate his fill and was pleased with the gesture. Why I sift flour onto the floor to resemble snow, having Troy then make footprints, proof of St. Nicholas’s presence in our house.
There is something about tradition that calms me. Too much of the time I am flailing in the unfamiliar and I welcome these habitual self-imposed responsibilities as a right of passage from one year into the next. With each implementation of a sentimental ritual, I cement the memories of our young family, still soft in the relative newness of their development. Eventually, despite the initial complaining, my kids will become the uncompromising enforcers of these Sabourin customs because they too will find security within their boundaries.
God is merciful to give us holidays, feasts to look forward to. A tradition of beliefs and celebrations passed down from generation to generation, regardless of what this world can throw at us, serve to keep me grounded in faith and community. I thrive on the predictability of the Church, on a calendar guiding me from one holy event to the next. Sometimes I grumble about too many services or too much preparation involving less food and entertainment, but I will be the first to admit that having a Tradition to build my life around, to grab hold of without worrying about the strength of its foundation, has kept me more than once from drifting off into ambiguity.
The night before St. Nicholas was scheduled to make his yearly stop, I overheard Elijah tell his sister, “I wonder if this year he’ll step in the flour like he did last time?” I smiled at my son’s unquestioningly literal translation of the clues I had carefully orchestrated for their pleasure. It was good to know he would not be disappointed. This memory will be layered with others, like our family photos placed one beneath the other in an 8x10 frame. They will be his to flip through whenever he needs a good dose of home, reminding him of who he is and where he comes from, the one gift guaranteed to grow sweeter with time.