When my boys were growing up, we had them experience new and different things, especially when they were in elementary school. We thought we would expose them to a lot, and then they could make their choices later in life. Once when we were visiting my parents in Mississippi, our older son took the camera to take photographs while he took a hike in the woods. He was responsible with the camera. We knew that the camera would be returned unharmed. The only cost was a roll of film and the processing. He might actually have a picture worth keeping. The camera was totally manual. Our son had learned how to focus, what F-stop to use for various lighting, and a few other adjustments.
We returned home to South Carolina (at the time) and we got the film developed. What we didn’t know was that our son had taken a picture of my father during his walk. My dad was wearing a baseball cap and old coveralls. He had been working in his garden. He had planted a running vine type bean. He built a trellis so that the vines created a tunnel. You could pick beans from the outside or go into the tunnel and pick from the inside, in the shade of the vines. He emerged from the trellis and posed for our son. He actually smiled. My Dad didn’t smile that often. It was such a beautiful likeness that we took the negative back to the store and had 5×7 glossies made for everyone in the family.
It wasn’t just a picture of our son’s Granddad, it was a picture with near perfect composition (what is shown is cropped, a lot). The bean plants and trellis perfectly frame my father. The lighting wasn’t perfect, but the only real shadow was due to the brim of Dad’s cap. He is in his favorite habitat. Who could find anything wrong with the picture? We forgot about my mother when we asked that question. She always told you what was wrong or what could have been done better. She had no capacity with me or my children in giving compliments.
Upon our return to Mississippi for the next visit, my mother took one look at the photograph and said, “You should have burned that picture. It is horrible.” She didn’t burn the picture. She didn’t throw it away. She filed it. Once properly filed, it would never see the light of day again, or so she thought at the time.
In discussing with my mother about what was wrong with the picture, she said that her biggest problem was that he was wearing coveralls. It wasn’t just the fact that he had on something that she refused to let him wear in public, it was a torn pair of coveralls that he refused to throw away. They were broken in. They were his most comfortable pair. Also, he had been working for a while and you could tell that the coveralls were dirty. She would not give a compliment on the composition, lighting, or even that the picture was in focus.
This happened about 30 years ago.
Let’s fast-forward to six years ago. My father had passed away. During the viewing, usually people place a lot of photographs of the departed around the viewing room. It’s a way of remembering the good times, and getting conversations started on the good times rather than focused on the loss. My mother had decided to keep it simple. There was a small round table with the American flag (my Dad having served in World War II in Europe and during the Korean War) and the photograph that my son had taken, the picture that should have been burned.
What happened in those 24 years?
First of all, my mother had always been a control freak. Everyone was well dressed when seen in public. We only wore Sunday best on Sundays, weddings, and funerals, but we were respectable the rest of the time. That meant we had work clothing to keep from ruining our respectable clothing. She had other rules about posture, dining room etiquette, touching a key on the piano or organ, getting dirt on her carpet, and too many others to name. Hopefully, you get the idea.
Then, my mother got torticollis. Her neck became twisted. Even with therapy, her neck was never straight again. She lived in pain for the rest of her life. The doctors researched the disease and told her that the usual person who gets torticollis is borderline obsessive compulsive, if not full blown OCD. She was told to relax. Even though my mother ruled the home with an iron fist, she had a sense of fairness. If she had to simplify her wardrobe, she couldn’t expect others to comply with her strict rules. Even without saying it, you knew it hurt her to see us not dress properly.
Even so, the dirty, torn coveralls were still too much to bare. Then, my Dad got sick.
My Dad had prostate cancer. At least, his PSA (prostate-specific antigen) was very high. He had his prostate removed. After low PSA readings for a while, the PSA started to climb back up. He then went through radiation. The same thing happened, low then high PSA. At the next spike in PSA, they used an implant, inserting a tube in his groin, and then placing a radioactive source inside the tube. This worked, but his hormones were horribly off kilter. He would have crying jags at times. He would try to hold it in, but he would always talk about the importance of knowing and loving Jesus. You knew when he started that subject that he was having trouble controlling his emotions. He was always an introvert, but he became more reclusive. The worst part was that he became incontinent. He wore diapers at times, and never passed a rest area on the highway without stopping, just in case. In time, all of this was over. The doctors, afraid of malpractice, finally refused to insert the radiation source. After a short time, the PSA stayed low without the implant. But the incontinence was a constant fear.
How does this relate to the photograph? With a fear of incontinence, my Dad never wore his comfortable coveralls. He would never be able to rush into the house, unzip the coveralls, and climb out of them in time. He always felt that he was less of a man because of it. The photograph reminded my mother of happier times. My Dad was healthy. My Dad was strong. My Dad was smiling. My Dad was comfortable in his favorite coveralls.
Life is too short for silly rules. A house that doesn’t look lived in is not a home. Someday, we’ll go to where we have a beautiful home. Until then, we need to remember what is important. For my mother upon the loss of her husband of over 70 years, it was a picture that she once said should be burned.