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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.