Sometimes a picture just isn't worth 1,000 words

Posted: Friday, August 10, 2007

I knew it wouldn't work the moment we passed through the entrance and the bell rang alerting the photographer of our arrival. In that 20/20 hindsight that is the bane of all parents, I know now that I should have smiled and made an excuse right then and there: "So sorry but today just won't work for us. I'll call you (not)."

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But, no. I persevered. I cajoled. I humiliated myself. I disregarded lessons learned from 17 years of parenting.

My first-born was graduating from high school. It was a year full of rituals and memory making, college applications, graduation ceremonies and, yes, the senior portrait. Our family isn't really the formal portrait type. In fact, we have never had a family portrait taken. But for some reason, my husband and I took note when the solicitations for senior portraits arrived in our mailbox. We thought, "wouldn't it be nice" to have a formal picture of our daughter?

So there we were, the photographer, my daughter and me, surrounded by the images of seniors past - blondes with perfect skin in black dresses revealing smooth shoulders, pearl necklaces tastefully secured around lovely long necks, young men in navy V-necks and khakis holding basketballs with lettermen jackets slung over their shoulders. I saw no one that vaguely reflected my daughter's Salvation Army bohemian look. More to the point, neither did she. I reminded myself this was just a fact-finding mission; the actual portrait appointment was scheduled for the next week. I persevered.

"What do you have in mind?" the photographer inquired unsure whether to direct his question to me, the apologetic mother, or to my resistant daughter.

I picked up one of the binders containing samples and cleared my throat.

"This one's nice, honey. See? She's not dressed up or anything." I was cajoling. "Or how about this one? She has a pierced nose, too. Dad and I decided you could wear your nose stud - maybe that little silver one?"

Unwittingly, I crossed the line.

"You decided to let me keep in my nose piercing? And I haven't worn a stud for months, Mom. I wear a nose ring, not a stud."

"I know, honey, and I like it. I really do. I just think a stud might, well, you know, might be less obtrusive."

The photographer, it was clear, had seen this before. "How 'bout I let you two look through these books and get some ideas. Just ring the bell when you're ready."

Like that's going to happen, I thought.

My motivation for polite behavior exited with the photographer and I charged at my daughter. "You are embarrassing me. You are acting like a 2-year-old."

"I don't want to be here. I told you that from the start. I'll just have one of my friends take my picture and it will be fine."

"Your dad and I are asking this one small favor of you. Is that too much? You don't have to pay for it. You don't have to like it. You just have to go along."

"Just think of all the money you're saving," she answered as she headed for the door.

"That's it, then," I spat out my words, slammed closed the photo album, and followed her out. I was fuming.

"One little request," I snapped at her in the car. "We are just asking you to do this one thing for us. Is that so much?"

"It might be a little request to you," she matched my tone, "but it's not little to me."

We rode in silence for a while. I passed the turnoff to our house and headed out the road, gripping the wheel.

"What about when you got married, Mom? Grandma asked you to do stuff like wear makeup and shave your legs. But you said it just wasn't "who you were" and that Grandma needed to respect that. What's different about this?"

I glanced over at my daughter, defiant and resolute. I thought of times during her teenage years when she would have loved to prepare for a portrait sitting. When she was 13 weighing less than 100 pounds. She was proud of her thin body. But I would have looked at that picture and only seen the pressure that prevented her from eating. And then there was that dreadful phase with thick foundation, pitch-black mascara and shirts revealing too much cleavage. Why would I want to remember that? But in that moment, she struck me as nearly perfect, with her henna-dyed hair and her thrift store clothes and even her nose ring. The set of her jaw claimed she already owned the world. But the vulnerability of her eyes revealed that she had yet to discover it. That was the daughter I wanted to capture and hold forever.

I pulled over at the next chance and put the car in neutral. I turned to face her - this strong, stubborn, lovely, young woman - and I took a long look.

Because I knew that was her senior portrait.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of family, work and life in Southeast.

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