Giving Thanks for the Family Photo

A commercial currently airing on television here tells you, the viewer, several things you need to do to in life.  Among the list, the woman announcer says: “Take pictures.  Lots of them.  In 20 years you’ll be glad you did.”

I couldn’t agree more.  In fact, one of the pictures I’m glad now I have is one that we took not 20 years ago but only five years back on Thanksgiving Day.  It was the last big Thanksgiving that I and my family spent with my relatives in my hometown.  Like many Americans, on that day, we made the journey home, halfway across the county, to be with them all for just a few days.  (The Thanksgiving holiday is the busiest travel time in the United States, both on the ground and in the air.  If you don’t believe me, just drop in at any airport a day or two before.)

The first of the family heed the call to come for a picture.
The first of the family heed the call to come for a picture.

Remember the old song “Over the River and Through the Wood“?  Written in 1844, the words were taken from a Thanksgiving Day poem penned by Lydia Maria Child.  Later, it was set to music by an unknown composer and has since become an American holiday classic tune that schoolchildren still learn.  Amazingly, her words still describe the feeling of anticipation as well as the travails of travelling to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving Day dinner. Even the last line: ‘Hurra, for the pumpkin pie!” remains astonishingly accurate as pumpkin pie is a staple on the holiday dinner menu.

In our case, the trip to Grandmother’s house was not made via horse-drawn sleigh, as Child wrote.  Our update version involved a 90-minute drive to the airport, a three-hour flight with a 90 minute to two-hour lay-over, followed by another 90-minute drive once we landed at our destination.  But “we seem(ed) to go, extremely slow,” as one of poem’s stanzas read. Despite the hassles of modern-day air travel, it was a trek I would repeat, and did repeat for many years, just like millions of other Americans.

Family members help with chairs to seat my parents and my uncle.
Family members help with chairs to seat my parents and my uncle.

What made this particular Thanksgiving Day so special from others was that it came just after my father’s 90th birthday, which we also celebrated then.  We would later learn that it also would be the last Thanksgiving at which both of my parents and my Dad’s youngest brother, Jiggs, would have with all of us who came that day. Not all of the members of our extensive family were able to attend the day’s dinner, but those of us who did would agree that it was a Thanksgiving they will long remember.

The day was bright and brisk. Most of the leaves had fallen and the grass was starting to turn brown. But winter had not yet arrived.  It was that awkward in-between seasons time that makes packing difficult because you never know exactly what you might need.  On this Thanksgiving, sweaters and jackets were a good idea whenever you went outdoors. With the favorable weather, someone–probably me but I don’t remember–suggested that we take a family picture before dinner.

At least the oldest generation of the family is finally in place. Now, to just get everyone else lined up.
At least the oldest generation of the family is finally in place. Now, to just get everyone else lined up.

Although the Crooks family is better than most when it comes to cooperating for family photographs, rounding everyone up was a bit of a challenge. Some of our group was at my brother’s home still cleaning up from the brunch we had earlier in the day. Some had already walked down to my cousin’s house, on the corner a block away, to start dinner or to check on the turkey that had already been seasoned and placed in the oven. My uncle had gone back to his own house around the block to watch the football games that had already begun on television. And my nephew, who had to split his holiday between his Dad’s house and his Mother’s home 60 miles away, had to leave.

The timing wasn’t the best for a family portrait. Light-wise it was terrible as it was nearly noon. Much too bright and early for a good quality portrait with light that would flatter everyone. But it was Thanksgiving.

One final check to make sure that everyone is present and ready.
One Final Check

We directed everyone to assemble on the front steps of my brother’s home. After few adjustments of getting everyone arranged, we were ready. Rather than setting a timer and running and jumping into place, my cousin-in-law’s father, who had joined us that day, was to be the trigger release man. I gave him some quick instructions, showed him the button to push without moving the camera, and hoped for the best.  The results were what you see here. It’s just a ‘snapshot’ but it’s full of family dynamics.

There’s my mother sitting front and center trying to look her best. The dementia hadn’t yet taken her completely away. It would be the last photo we’d have like this before she had to move into the assisted care facility after my father broke his hip the following New Year’s Eve.  My Uncle Jiggs, my Dad’s youngest brother is seated there to her right. Always the jokester of the family, he’s got that big grin on his face. You just know he’s up to no good. Sitting on the other side of my Mom is my Dad. He’s still very vital in this photo. His feet and hands placed just as he would have directed a subject if he had been taking one of his professional family group portraits. My Dad always smiled whenever someone took his picture. I think he believed that that’s how he wanted to be remembered, with a smile on his face.

The final result of our effort--a family gathered together for one last picture.
The final result of our effort–a family gathered together for one last picture.

The rest of our motley crew pictured here are cousins and their children, all nearly the same age. When my three young sons were growing up, I made it a point to haul them back to Kansas with me as often as I could so that they would know their cousins who lived there. It paid off. Today, this third generation, not all of whom are pictured here by any means, remain ‘relatively’ close and stay in touch with each other.  Of course, social media outlets have helped make that easier and even more possible.

True, we’re missing family members from this photo but it remains priceless because of the wonderful memories it brings back for me of that day and of the fun of all being together. Those days are rare and have become even more rare over time. Sometimes, there are no second chances, as is the case with this Thanksgiving family picture. This was the last time we would get a photo with all of us and the three of them. Within the next four short years, they all would be gone. Even my cousin’s father who clicked the shutter for me just passed away this month.

We all play it up for one last picture.  A true classic.
We all play it up for one last picture. A true classic.

With both my parents and my uncle now gone, the picture is impossible to duplicate. It is exactly why photographs l become so precious over time. It is why, as the television commercial puts it: “In 20 years, you’ll be glad you did.” It’s only been five years since we made this family photo, and I think all of us in it are very glad we did.

If your family is together for Thanksgiving dinner this year, take time out, above the any protests of some less photo-enthusiastic relatives, to record the occasion with a group photo. Whether you’ve engaged a professional photographer like myself or not, that photograph will, in 20 years or less, become a priceless visual memory of your single day together.

 

Small Town Salutes American Vets

In small towns all across the United States, Americans will be celebrating our Veterans’ Day holiday on Tuesday, November 11.  For schoolchildren, it will be mean a day off from classes. For federal employees it will be day off from work.  Mail doesn’t move. Banks are closed but the stock markets are open. And sadly, major retailers have turned the day into one of the major shopping sale days of the year. I think that’s hardly what President Woodrow Wilson, who first proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, or President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, expanded the holiday as a day to honor all military veterans, had in mind when they made the holiday an official American observance.

American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.
American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.

But in small towns all across the United States, the original intention of the holiday–to celebrate and recognize all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces–is carried out in parades, ceremonies, flag-flying, grave decorating, speeches, band concerts, patriotic performances and special dinners for veterans.  In my small, hometown of Parsons, KS., (population 10,164), the local Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, hosts a simple, but moving program for anyone who wants to attend.  I happened to be visiting my father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, on two recent Veterans’ Days–in 2011 and 2013–and accompanied him to the program.  At the time, I didn’t know that the 2013 program would be his last.  Now, the memories and photographs I took on that day, hold even more significance for me.

The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 55 a day.  Of the 16 million who served in World War II, only a little more than a million survive. My Dad was among a handful of them in attendance at the 2013 VFW ceremony. Those who were there that day, proudly rose to their feet when the VFW’s color guard strode in with the American flag.  I was surprised at how touched I was to watch some of these old soldiers and sailors struggle to push themselves up from their chairs to stand and salute the flag.  I could tell that my own father was saddened that he could not join them because he was seated in a wheelchair and not strong enough at the time to stand up.  But he removed his cap and placed his hand over his heart as the flag passed by.  And again, when each branch of the military’s own flag was introduced and carried into the room, the veterans, young and old representing that branch, proudly arose to be recognized by the others in the audience.

Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2013. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.
Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2011. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.

The program was appropriately patriotic but not war-mongering.  No one among these assembled veterans, I think was a fan of war.  I know my own Dad certainly wasn’t. He felt great concern for the safety of the young troops serving in our country’s current conflicts.  He believed that no one should have to experience what they, as veterans, had to endure. Interestingly, at the reunions I attended with my father for his Army outfit, the young soldiers who came to meet their predecessors expressed the opinion that my Dad’s generation went through much more than they, as modern-day soldiers, have ever had to face, even if deployed overseas.

My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.

At the Parsons program, the local post commander, dressed in full military uniform introduced the day’s speaker, neither of whom I really remember. Their speeches came nowhere close to being as stirring as sitting and talking and acknowledging the veteran’s who were in the room that day.  The local high school band played a few selections, a little off-pitch, of familiar patriotic music before and during the program.  They struck up Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” by as everyone filed out to the parking lot outside for the twenty-one gun salute and the playing of the plaintive tune, ‘Taps.’

The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.
The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.

On both the Veterans’ Days when I was present, the red, white and blue of the American flags flying on the poles lining the gravel lot, flapped in the wind and stood out dramatically against the bright blue of the sky. Many of the flags flying that day at the post had been donated by local families who had received them upon their own veteran’s death.  I now own one of  those flags.  And while I haven’t yet the heart to part with it, I think that it may one day fly with those flags in a private salute to my Dad who, during his own 92-year lifetime, saluted so many others.

My Dad's favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad’s favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran on the front side, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.