Food, Family and Fun Times around the Christmas Table

This year for Christmas, I made a photo book for each of my brothers titled:  “Food, Family and Fun Times.”  I was prompted to do so when my younger brother, Brad, asked if I had any of the recipes from my mom and my aunts.  He was looking for one in particular, the red-hot salad that was on our table at nearly every Christmas dinner.   Maybe you know the one I mean:  cherry or strawberry jello combined with applesauce and those pill-sized red-hot candies that are melted before you stir them into the mixture.  You chill it to congeal.  It’s tasty but full of sugar. That’s probably one reason I too liked it so much as a kid.

One of the photos I found while assembling my photo gift book was this one of my Dad slicing green tomatoes for his pie.

Everyone has their own traditions when it comes to Christmas dinners, if your family is fortunate enough to be together for the holiday and can afford this one big feast.  As I assembled the photo book, I searched through my parents’ old photo albums, many of which I have, as well as my own to find photos that I could include in the book.  Originally, I was looking for snapshots taken of my parents and my aunts in their kitchens, preparing some of the foods for which I had the recipe cards.  But I discovered that I had very few of these photos and the ones I had were mostly of my Dad taken just a few years before he died making his favorite picalilli relish or green tomato pie.

One of my Dad’s favorite recipes was this one for the piccalilli relish.

Instead, what I  had were several snapshots taken at the family dinner tables before the meal commenced.  Many were taken on holidays or special occasions, such as birthdays. As I sorted through the years of photos, I studied the dishes placed on the table. Some I could easily recognize, like the fluffy lime green jello salad with pineapple and whipped cream (usually the artificial Cool Whip product) folded in.  Sometimes there was turkey, often ham as the main course.   Mashed potatoes, especially for the Thanksgiving dinner, but at Christmas it often was scalloped potatoes that I recall my Aunt Marie prepared.

There were dinners at the table in the make-shift dining room at my parents’ house at the motel my parents co-owned with my aunt and uncle and where grew up.

The dining room wasn’t large at my parents’ home at the motel where I grew up but the Christmas dinners always took place.

It was a pretty tight squeeze to get everyone seated around my mother’s Duncan Phyfe table, even with the leaves put in.  My mother’s nice china was set out with the centerpiece a little  handcrafted tiered Christmas tree made from red netting material.  Some years my Aunt Oleta and Uncle Joe who had moved from my hometown to another small town 45 minutes away joined us; sometimes it was just my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale.

Two of my favorite Christmas dinner photos were taken years apart of the family together in the basement of my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home where we gathered for big celebrations.  The first was made when I was eight-years-old (I can tell by the dress I’m wearing). This photo special because one of my aunt and uncles from California, along with my cousin, is there as well as my aunt and cousin who lived in Hutchinson, Kansas,three hours away in Kansas. My cousins, Kevin, Leland and Debbie–just a baby–are there too with their parents, my Uncle Jiggs and Aunt Bernice.  It’s quite a photo because so seldom was this many of the Crooks clan together at Christmas.  Even though we’re not sitting at the table, I know that the table is set just on the other side of the camera with dinner no doubt waiting for us all.

The family gathers for a Christmas dinner.

The other recalls the another big Christmas gathering the first year I was in college.  (Know that from my hairstyle.) We’re all there again, minus the California and Hutchinson families and plus my youngest brother who is standing beside my uncle and just peeking over the back of one of the heavy, tall, carved oak chairs at the table’s end.  And again, the cousins who lived in town, are there, with my aunt and uncle.  This time, however, the photo is in color, the color film technology having long since become readily available.

Taken years later from the first gathering, the family comes together for another Christmas dinner in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

I carry on the Christmas dinner tradition with my own family. My parents, aunts and uncles with whom we ate have passed on but there’s a new generation who gather round the table that includes my sons and when possible the grown children and now grandchildren of those aunts and uncles.  I still insist on taking a photo of everyone once we’ve all sat down for the holiday dinner so we can relive these priceless moments in the future through the photographic memory.  The foods, the fun and the family time together are the real recipes for what makes the season bright.

Christmas Card Photos Create Future Memories of Past Holidays

I had not planned to write a Christmas piece. But when I came across this photograph while working on my own Christmas cards earlier this week, I changed my mind. I intended to insert the photo into one of my brother’s Christmas cards but missed it in my haste to mail the cards.

Memories came rushing back as I was looking at this photo the other evening after discovering that I had failed to enclose it into the card.  I had just taken a family portrait last week for a client prompting me to think about the importance of our own annual Christmas card photo.  This was an annual event when I was growing up from my very first Christmas.

The annual Chistmas card family photo.
The annual Christmas card family photo.

This photo is more than just my parents’ Christmas card photo that year. Many memories are bound within the borders of this one image.  For instance, the photo was taken in my parents home. That door behind us led to the office of the motel co-owned and operated by my parents with my aunt and uncle.  I spent the first 16 years of my life living in at a motel. I never gave a thought to the fact that other kids didn’t live in a place that had ten guest rooms and a black top courtyard where my brother and I and my best friend from across the street played baseball games, held parades and rode around bikes round and round the evergreen tree that grew in a center planter.

The green satin dress that I’m wearing was made by my Aunt Marie, an excellent seamstress as well as cook.  I wore it in the wedding for a young Japanese couple–Aikio an Sojii–who were exchange students at the local community college and who were married in the Washington Avenue Methodist Church in town. I, along with my friend, Dru, were the candle-lighters.

The older of my two brothers, Richard, standing by my mother, was the ring bearer to Dru’s sister’s flower girl.  The suit and bow tie he wears was what he wore for the wedding too, maybe minus the white socks. This photo also shows how much my brother’s son resembles him. I have seen that similar look in my nephew.

The toddler on my mother’s lap is my younger brother, Brad. On the reverse of the actual photo, my mother had written: “Leon Crooks family – 12/64.” Brad was nine months old. My Dad took him into the studio and made a New Year’s baby picture of him wearing only a big smile a diaper and holding a bell. I am reminded how much my youngest son looked like him when he was that age.  The picture is still one of my favorites and I have a small wallet-sized print of it on display in my home.

My youngest brother is the New Year's baby in this studio portrait made in 1964.
My youngest brother is the New Year’s baby in this studio portrait made in 1964.

That rocking chair my mother is seated in was her Mother’s Day gift.  We had put a big yellow bow and ribbon on it, I remember, and surprised her with it after church that day. But when we came home, we learned that our prize-winning white Persian cat, Prince, who had one blue eye and one brown, had been run over and killed by a car.  It turned out that Prince was deaf, a defect often found in Persian cats with eyes of different color. I will never forget that Mother’s Day. I suspect my Mom didn’t either.

The print hanging on the wall behind my mother is one my Dad took of me sitting in Swope Park in Kansas City when I was four years old.  He entered and earned a merit with it in competition in his professional photographer’s association. I still own that print.

The big television behind us was a popular model at the time made by the now defunct RCA company. Besides the ‘big screen’ television, it housed a stereo turntable on one end with the control panel hidden on the other. No one makes anything like these electronic dinosaurs anymore.

And I couldn’t overlook the fashion statement of my Mom and Dad’s clothing. Although her fashion budget was tight and limited, my Mom always looked stylish.  I can’t see enough detail in the dress she’s wearing here to know for certain, but I bet she had purchased it at either Stephen’s Women’s Wear, the ‘upscale’ women’s clothing store in my hometown at the time, or Lane’s, which occupied a big retail space across the street from my Dad’s studio downtown on Main Street.

My Dad, of course, is wearing one of his signature bow ties.  My brother’s bow tie is undoubtedly a clip on, but my Dad wore nothing but the real deal.  When he passed away two years ago, those of us from the family attending his funeral, including myself, decided to each wear one of his bow ties as a nod to his trademark. Unfortunately, he had never taught any of us how to tie a bow tie. We had to find someone to show us how to execute the bow tie knot just hours before his service. Fortunately, one of my family’s lifelong friends, Pete Hughes, came to our rescue. I now can tie one on with the best of them. Also note the handkerchief nicely folded and peeking from his coat pocket. How often do you see that today?

Finally, since my Dad is in the photo, he obviously wasn’t the one tripping the shutter for this picture. I am certain that he had placed the camera on a tripod and had asked my aunt Marie, a pretty good amateur photographer, to press the shutter for him. Marie was often recruited for this task.

Your annual Christmas card photo may appear to be merely an image, but the picture truly is, to coin an old, time-worn phrase, ‘worth a thousand words.’ I’ve written nearly a thousand words here inspired by this singular photo when I had not planned to write anything this Christmas holiday. The photo unexpectedly stirred memories of wonderful times with my family.  And that, is a gift in itself. My wish for you is that you too will create future memories with a family photo of your own this holiday season.


A Christmas Story Rerun

“I always tell people about you at this time of year.” Richard Elmore said as we met and hugged in the lobby of the theatre that is home to the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Richard, or Dick as I know him, had just finished a Sunday afternoon performance of Robert Schenkkan‘s play, “The Great Society” in which he portrays FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover.  The play is a dramatization of Lyndon Johnson’s second term in office.  Playwright Schenkkan’s companion piece “All the Way”, about Johnson’s first year in office, won the Tony Award and is also playing in concurrently at the Seattle Rep in partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from Ashland, Ore.

“The Great Society,” which I saw, is a powerful and well-crafted piece about Johnson’s tumultuous second term and his fall from grace as the quagmire of the Vietnam War pulled him further and further under and away from his agenda of social programs and civil rights. The play’s themes are sadly still current and harken to the recent events in Ferguson, MO. and elsewhere that confront President Obama and the country. Dick, as J. Edgar Hoover, is the devious FBI director whose loyalties go only as far as his serving his own interests and personal political agenda.

Actor Richard Elmore and I with a towering life-size LBJ cut-out after Elmore's performance  in The Great Society.
Actor Richard Elmore and I with a towering life-size LBJ cut-out after Elmore’s performance in The Great Society.

Dick has been a member of the Oregon company for 30 years playing more parts than his short bio in the program can list. When I learned that he was to be in Seattle with the play, we arranged to meet after the show and catch up.

I first met Dick in Phoenix when he was first starting out as an actor in local productions there. I was working as a theatre reviewer and journalist for the Phoenix papers at the time. We became friends. Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and Dick headed to Ashland where he soon established himself as a resident company member with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But before that, the two of us teamed up one Christmas for an article that I had suggested to my editor at the Arizona Republic’s magazine.To tell the truth, I hadn’t remembered about it until recently when my oldest son and I were watching a 1999 television movie “Season for Miracles.” (We both agreed it was a pretty sappy show.)

“I once wrote a Christmas story,” I told my son who, frankly,doesn’t know that much about my journalism career. That year, as I told my son, I proposed to my magazine editor that Dick and I go out into the neighborhoods of Phoenix at night five days before Christmas and pose as a husband and his pregnant wife in need of help and a place to sleep for the night. Sound familiar? We wanted to test the Christmas ‘spirit,’ just to see whether or not it was still alive and whether anyone would be willing to take us in just as the Bethlehem innkeeper did for Mary and Joseph centuries ago.

Posing as a modern-day version of Mary and Joseph, Rickahrd Elmore and I went door to door in Phoenix seeking a place to stay.
Posing as a modern-day version of Mary and Joseph, Richard Elmore and I went door to door in Phoenix seeking a place to stay.

We went from house to house, knocking on the doors of homes both large and small, festively decorated with lights as well as those that weren’t, of those well-to-do and those less fortunate. It was cold, even for Phoenix. Dick had our story rehearsed. We were passing through Phoenix when our car broke down. We had no money and just needed somewhere to stay for the night so that he could try to fix our car in the morning. I tried my best to look helpless and pregnant, thanks to a well-placed pillow under my clothes.

When Dick agreed to masquerade with me as the Biblical couple neither of us really knew quite what to expect.  Most people, we suspected, would simply turn us away or not answer the door at all. To be sure, that was the case with many. But much to our surprise, some of those who came to the door actually invited us inside, offered us something to eat, phoned the local Salvation Army, gave us money to get a room at a nearby motel and, in three instances, opened their homes to us for the night before I revealed our true identities and told them about my assignment. It was a remarkable and heart-warming experience. I think it restored our own faith in the goodness of ordinary people.

I hadn’t thought about that journalistic endeavor for many years. Apparently, Dick has never forgotten it because no sooner had we hugged each other in the lobby than he told me:”I always tell people about you at Christmas and about that night that we went out in Phoenix.” It’s a Christmas memory that we share. It was a gutsy charade, even then, we both agreed. Dick and I mused whether or not imposters such as ourselves those pre-Christmas nights would still be invited in to anyone’s home today. I don’t know. I like to think that they would.

My original article follows if you’d like to read it.

A Place to Spend the Night 

by Cheryl Crooks
Doris Kroll and her daughter, Lisa, were stirring the pots of fancy Christmas cooking on the stove top when a knock sounded at the front door. She looked at the kitchen clock.
Ten thirty. She looked at the kitchen clock. Her husband, John, had already retired for the night. The family poodle barked at her heels. She flipped on an outside light and cracked the door of her Scottsdale home. “Yes?” she said, peering into the darkness.

A man, wearing an old Army jacket, stepped from the front of the house into the halo of yellow light.  A pregnant woman stood  behind him.

“I’m sorry to bother you at this late hour, ma’am,” the man said, “but we’re from out-of-town and our car just broke down.” The man was a Phoenix actor Richard Elmore. I pretended to be his wife.

Five days before Christmas, we decided to test the Christmas spirit by going door to door, seeking room for the night, just as Joseph and Mary had done centuries ago.Their reactions to our plea for a place to spend the night had not been unexpected. So at the third house, when Max Coulson asked us to come in, we were surprised. Mrs. Kroll listened quietly as he told of our misfortunes. After a moment she said, “Would you like some coffee?” and invited us inside.

“I just got home from art class,” she said, seating us at the kitchen table. In the adjoining living room was a ceiling-high Christmas tree with wrapped packages beneath. The kitchen was bright and warm and smelled sweet from the confections. “We’re making candy,”she said. “I’ll fix your coffee in a minute.”

“If you only had a place for my wife, I can sleep in the car, but she’s pregnant,” Elmore said.

“My daughter has a spinal disease so I can’t give up her bed but you could sleep on the couch,”Mrs. Kroll said. “I feel badly about letting you sleep in the car,” she said to Elmore. “It won’t be very comfortable. At least I can give you a blanket.”

“I don’t believe it,” my “husband”said, returning to the car afterwards. “Her husband was unemployed, her daughter had a spinal disease and she was still giving you a place to stay.”

The evening hadn’t begun as well. People at the  first two Scottsdale homes turned us away  with, “Call the police or the Scottsdale Family Society, they’ll help you,” and a polite but firm, “We’re cramped here, we’ve had a lot of people come for the holidays. Sorry.”

“Tell my wife what you just told me,” he said, ushering us into the family room where his wife, Loretta, and their two children were watching television.

“My wife is pregnant and, well,we were just wondering if you might be able to put us up for the night,” Elmore said. “We have no money.”

“What can we do to help these people?” Coulson said after Elmore had explained our predicament.

“Why don’t we fix them some coffee?” Mrs. Coulson said.

“Thanks, but we don’t want to cause a lot of trouble,” Elmore said.

There must be someone we can call,” Mrs. Coulson said. She walked to the telephone on the breakfast counter and began to thumb through the directory.

“If we could just sleep in your backyard,” Elmore said.

“Oh no, you couldn’t do that. It’s too cold,” Coulson said.

“Maybe the Salvation Army,” his wife said, lifting the receiver. She dialed the number.

Just down the block from the Coulson home, Gene Cash was pushing his motorcycle into his garage. We approached him.

“I suppose so,” Cash said, when asked if he had a place where we could stay “I have a spare room. If that’s not what it’s for, what is it for? Besides, you would be good company.”

We were speechless. No one took in strangers anymore. You couldn’t trust them.

It was 11 p.m. when we knocked on the door of Ruth and Meade Long’s Scottsdale home. They were getting ready for bed. Long answered the door. As Elmore began to tell our story, Mrs. Long joined her husband  at the door.

“Give them some money, Meade,” she said.

Long mumbled something to his wife. He seemed reluctant. Because Long had been laid off his job, their income had been reduced to the money Mrs. Long earned cleaning houses during the day. She stepped away from the door and picked up her purse that was on the living room table.

“Here,” she said, handing us ten dollars. “There’s a Motel Six just down the street. You should be able to get something there. I’d be afraid to let you stay here because our dog bit the mailman today.”

“This sure is changing my attitude about people,” Elmore said as we drove away. “Really makes you stop and think.”

The next evening we decided to visit a neighborhood in central Phoenix. We walked up the steps to the front door of a brick house. The porch light was on. Elmore pressed the bell.

“Who is it?”a man shouted from inside. The stocking feet of a man lying on the floor watching television with a beer can sitting him could be seen through the door window.

“Hello?” Elmore said.

“We don’t want any,” the voice said.

“We don’t want any? What does he mean,’We don’t want any?'” Elmore said as we headed towards the house across the street.

“We have company and have no room here,” the man at the next house told us, “but go across the street to that house. Tell her Matthew sent you. She has a little house out behind hers.”

Elmore and I walked to the corner house to which Matthew had pointed. Mary Carr opened the door just as Elmore was about to knock. She had on her coat and scarf and was on her way to a school board meeting. We told her what Matthew had said.

“You can’t stay out there,” she said, referring to the house Matthew had mentioned. “That’s just a shed. It’s dirty and about to fall down. But come in.”

We followed her into the living room.

“Sit down, sit down,” she said, motioning to us. She took off her coat and threw it across the dining room table. “Let me see if I can find somebody to help you,” she said, picking up the telephone book. “The first people I think about in these situations is either the Salvation Army or the Crisis Intervention Center.” She found the number, reached for her telephone and dialed.

A chain link fence enclosed the yard of the next house we decided to visit. Inside, several lights were on. We knocked. Someone peeked out the front window .

We knocked again. A man appeared at the door.

We don’t have any room,” he said and shut the door .

We turned away to try to find room elsewhere.

“Just a minute,” the woman who answered the door at the next house said. She closed the door and disappeared. We sat on the front step wondering if she had gone to summon the police. Just then, Derek Van Deren opened the door. He was wearing a pajama top and wrinkled trousers. He looked as though he had been asleep. “Yes?” he said. He listened patiently.

“We don’t have anywhere here for you to stay,” he said. “It’s too cold to sleep outside. Have you gone to the Salvation Army?”

We told him we hadn’t.

“I can drive you down there,” Van Deren said. “They’ll be able to find a place for you. Let me put on my shoes.”

From the Van Deren neighborhood, we drove to the Encanto Park area where there are many expensive, two-story homes. We r waited at the front door of one. No one answered, but two silhouetted figures in the lighted upstairs window watched us depart.

Around the corner was another two-story home that had been gaily lit for the holiday season.The tall, green Christmas tree, elaborately decorated, was visible through the picture window. Packages hid the base of the tree. A wreath hung on the front door.

We rang the bell. Two faces looked out a side window. None appeared at the door.

The lights were also on at the neighboring house. We decided to try there. Elmore rang the bell. A dog barked.

“See that eye?” Elmore whispered. In the center of the large straw wreath trimmed with a big hung on the door was a tiny peephole through which an eye was studying us.

We rang again. Still no answer.

“Come on,” Elmore said, taking my arm.

As we started down the front sidewalk, the door opened slightly.

“What do you want?” a young boy called. He barred his foot across the opening to stop the dog from bounding out.

“Are your parents home?” Elmore said.

“They’re, uh, busy right now,” the boy said.

We explained that we were looking for a place to spend the night.

“Oh,well really, my parents aren’t here,” the boy said, still hiding behind the door as if he had been instructed to do so when talking to strangers.

“Thanks anyway,” Elmore said, and we turned away

“Wait,”the boy shouted and slipped through the opening, pushing the dog back inside. He was 11 or 12, had blond hair and no shoes on his stocking feet. Let me think,” he said, pacing back and forth on the lawn. His hand rubbed his chin, a mannerism he must have copied from an adult. He looked thoroughly frustrated.

“Go to Central,” he said. “You walk straight down this street and then, uh, well.

He obviously did not know what we should do once we got to Central Avenue, but to him it seemed the place for us to go. Central  Avenue was, after all,a very busy street.

“Thanks, anyway,” Elmore said, reassuring him that we would be fine.

“Merry Christmas,” the boy said, waving to us from the front porch.

“Merry Christmas,” we said.

The boy went back into his house.

“What do you know. It takes a child to show the way,” Elmore said, shaking his head as we left the neighborhood.

Most of the homes were dark when we arrived in a northwest Phoenix neighborhood. But one small house with a string of colored Christmas lights that out lined the front window was still lit up. We knocked at the door.

“No,I’m sorry, we don’t have any place for you to stay,” the woman who stood in the doorway said. She closed the door and watched as we walked away.

Response to our door-to-door search for room for the night had not been as fruitful as the evening before. Of the eight homes we had visited, only two people had offered to help and none had asked us to stay. We would try one more home before quitting. The door opened. A young man’s head crooked around the edge of the door.

“Just a minute,” he said, closing the door. A minute later the door opened again. “Come in,” Dan Brewer, who looked to be in his 20s, said. “I had to put some clothes on. I just got out of the shower.”

He led us through the entry hall into the living room where his wife, Tammy, was sitting on the couch in her robe feeding a bottle to their 4 -month-old daughter. “Sit down,” Brewer said. “Where’s your car again?”

Elmore repeated our story. Brewer left the room and returned with a can of caulking putty and a putty knife. He sat on the floor, cleaned the knife on the rim of the can and put the lid on as Elmore apologized for intruding.

“What do you want, boy or girl?” Mrs. Brewer said when her husband had left the room again.

Elmore and I looked at each other.

“Oh, uh, either, as long as it’s healthy,” he said.

“What do you think is the matter with your car?” Brewer said, re-entering the room. He wiped his hands on a towel.

“I don’t think it’s a big problem,” Elmore said. “I think I can fix it in the morning.”

Brewer exited again. Mrs. Brewer began to talk about her baby and asked about our expected child. Her husband entered the living room again, this time carrying a large, double sleeping  bag. He laid it on the floor and began to spread it out. They were giving us room for the night.

During the two evenings, we stopped at sixteen Phoenix area homes. At each, we had asked for a place to stay for the night. We were turned away at nine. Four others offered to help and three had taken us into their homes. It still beat what happened at Bethlehem.



Preserve and Protect Your Holiday Photos

One day this past week, I pulled out the drawer where I keep our family videos of Christmases past.  I shoved one into the VCR (fortunately we have a VCR drive on our DVD machine) and turned it on. The one I chose to watch was nearly 20 years ago. It was in remarkably good condition. My sons were small and full of glee over the holiday preparations.

Photos of my sons when they were small at Christmas are among my most precious photos.  Shown here with their Grandmother, I can only imagine the sticky hands they had after gtnawing on those candy canes.
Photos of my sons when they were small at Christmas are among my most precious photos. Shown here with their Grandmother, I can only imagine the sticky hands they had after gnawing on those candy canes.

My parents visited my family that year and I have video of them handing out the gifts they had packed into their suitcase to three excited little boys.  My mother-in-law, who was still living then, was there too at our caroling party cuddling my youngest in her arms. And my cousin’s son, who was like a big brother to my sons and who is no longer living, made an appearance to help my husband set up the toy train.  I was more captivated by our homemade video than any movie I’ve seen all year. I’ll bet many of you are taking photos and videos of your family and this year’s holiday festivities. Recording these visual memories takes many forms these days,–with cameras, phones, tablets or who knows what else.  I still chuckle whenever I see someone holding up a tablet to capture an image. But I must confess, the quality of some of these devices is pretty amazing. However, what happens to all those pictures and videos once they have been stored on the device’s memory card? Is  your memory  permanent or does it become lost somewhere in your personal cyberspace? Will anyone else years from now be able to retrieve it should they want to see how your family celebrated the holidays?

My family gathered at the long table in my aunt and uncle's basement to have our Christmas dinner together.
My family gathered at the long table in my aunt and uncle’s basement to have our Christmas dinner together.

The practice of taking ‘snapshots’ came into popularity during the early 1900s when Kodak introduced its first Brownie camera which sold for $1.  A roll of film was 15 cents. For the first time, according to Kodak history, “the hobby of photography was within the financial reach of virtually everyone.” As wages rose during the 1920s, snapshot photography became more and more part of American daily life.  Smaller cameras and better film allowed people to capture a life that was full of motion.   By the 1950s,  snapshots became even easier to take when Kodak’s first plastic Brownie camera came onto the market. These were even smaller versions of Kodak’s original box cameras and far easier to tote along to parties, on vacations or to keep handy around the house.

My first camera was a Brownie like this one.  The Brownie made holiday picture-taking easy.
My first camera was a Brownie like this one. The Brownie made holiday picture-taking easy.

The Brownie Bullet was a cube-shaped camera made of molded Bakelite plastic with a simple lens and shutter release whose dimensions were just a little larger than the 127 sized roll film loaded inside. This was my very first camera. Mine was the Brownie Holiday model. I still have it and all of the nearly square format black and white snapshots that I took with it. My earliest photos are now stored in what preceded today’s ‘memory card’–a photo album. I can pull it off the shelf, turn through the pages and re-live those days of my childhood through the photos affixed there to the page with little black paper corners.

One of my earliest photos, probably taken with my Brownie Starflash camera, was of my Dad carving the turkey at the holiday dinner.
One of my earliest photos, probably taken with my Brownie Starflash camera, was of my Dad carving the turkey at the holiday dinner.

Fast forward to today. Film has almost disappeared although some is still available. Cameras have taken new forms, some not even resembling a ‘traditional’ camera. Photo albums are rapidly being replaced by on-line versions where thousands of images can be simply dumped or neatly arranged and viewed on TVs, computer screens, phones or whatever. But in 20, 30, 40 years and beyond, will you, your progeny or historians be able to access these images so that you or they can get a glimpse of how we lived our lives and celebrated holidays together? It’s a question that I constantly ask myself and my studio clients. I suggest to all my friends and professional clients that they make prints of their personal pictures, especially the ones that they love the most. I also strongly urge everyone to download your images onto a back-up external hard drive and/or CD. Since starting to shoot digitally, I make two copies of both my personal and professional images on archival quality CDs. Of course, CDs no longer guarantee that you’ll have access to them in the future. Some Apple computer products, for example,  no longer come with CD drives.

This  shapshot of my parents with my aunts and uncles opening their Christmas was taken in the late 1940s and offers a priceless glimpse into my family's holiday celebration 'pre-me'.
This snapshot of my parents with my aunts and uncles opening their Christmas gifts was taken in the late 1940s and offers a priceless glimpse into my family’s holiday celebration ‘pre-me’.

At least with printed copies of your pictures you’ll have them later. I have never understood professional photographers, or amateur ones for that matter, who leave their images only in digital format. I have never sold my professional images only in that format, even though I’ve had plenty of requests to do so, because I think it’s a disservice to both my client and my work. It’s the same for your personal snapshots and your videos as well. In some ways, it’s even more important that you make prints of those images captured during the holidays and at other special times of the year because only you have them. They’re your personal memories recorded to recall visually the wonderful times you shared with family and friends.

My New Year’s wish is for you to preserve and protect your personal photos and videos. Please, make a resolution to print those images as well as download them. Put them in an album or shoe box or wherever it is you like to keep your most valuable documents so that years from now you too can look back and fondly remember these holidays.

Seasons Greetings

The first greeting card of the season arrived in the mail the other day–yes, the mail, the kind that still requires a  postage stamp and a short walk out to the mailbox in below-freezing temperatures to retrieve.  The sending and receiving of Christmas cards is a holiday ritual that I look forward to.  I still personally send and receive a goodly number of them–last year I mailed off nearly 100. I count myself fortunate that I know that many people to whom I would like to send greetings of the season.

In recent years, I’ve received more ‘e-cards’ but there is something wonderful about ripping open the paper envelope, sliding out the card and holding in your hand a paper card from someone you know even if you only hear from them by mail at this time of year.  The convenience of the Internet certainly has impacted the way we correspond with our friends and family.  It’s great to be able to sit down and chat via electronically on one of many of the modes of communication now available to us, just as I did this morning with my cousin in Los Angeles.  But for me, I still enjoy the old-fashioned Christmas card when it comes to wishing everyone a happy holiday.

One year, my Dad gathered the family in the studio for a Christmas card portrait.
One year, my Dad gathered the family in the studio for a Christmas card portrait. Don’t you love my hairstyle?

For the past two weeks, I’ve been busy in the studio designing, ordering and delivering holiday cards to my photography clients.  The cards feature the portraits I’ve taken of them either on the front cover or inside or both along with a personal message conveying their best wishes to their loved ones and friends.  It’s terrific fun to help them select just the right design for the photo they’ve chosen and pen a verse to say exactly what they want, if they haven’t already written it themselves.  And it’s even more rewarding to see how happy and pleased they are when I show them the finished product.  

My family has been creating Christmas cards for as long as I can remember.  Longer, in fact, as for my very first Christmas, my parents sent off a card with a photograph of me, cuddled in the arms of my beaming father with my beautiful mother next to him and the Christmas tree, trimmed in silver tinsel and shiny glass balls, behind us.

The year I was born, my parent' family and friends received this card at Christmas.
The year I was born, my parent’ family and friends received this card at Christmas.

In the photo, I look less than interested but I am so thrilled now to have this tangible Christmas memory, to be able to feel the thickness of the stiff-backed panel card and the embossed greeting and design on the front.  The names of my parents are also embossed onto the card but my name has been hand-printed in red, ball-point ink below it.  Maybe they didn’t anticipate including me in the picture when they ordered the card or maybe it was simply a printer’s mistake or limitation of the number of lines that could be included.  The photo itself is a ‘sepia-toned’ wallet that has been inserted and affixed in the pre-cut rounded-corner opening.  I have only one of these cards which found in a drawer my parents’ home during a visit there.  I cherish it as I would a priceless jewel, more in fact.

This card was printed on photographic paper by my dad in his studio. That's me and my brother, Richard, trying to guess what's in the packages.
This card was printed on photographic paper by my dad in his studio. That’s me and my brother, Richard, trying to guess what’s in the packages.

Throughout my childhood,  my brothers and I posed for the annual Christmas card photo.  Sometimes we included the family cat.  Sometimes we were wearing pajamas, other times our Sunday-best.  Sometimes we were placed at the piano or playing our instruments.  The year my youngest brother arrived, my aunt Marie made an oversized red flannel stocking into which my six-month-old brother was carefully stuffed while my other brother and I held it open. I know that there were years when I was less than excited about having to stand still while my dad, also a fine professional photographer, took the picture. But now,  I am so grateful that he and my mother insisted.

In the days when black and white was the only option, Dad had to print the Christmas card pictures himself on photographic paper, many of which doesn’t exist any more.  These photos would then be inserted into the card, just as I still do for myself and clients today.  In some cases, he printed the entire card on photographic paper.  I don’t know how he found the time to do them  as the holidays was always busy enough just trying to fulfill customers’ orders.

When my younger brother was born, we stuffed him into a stocking for the annual Christmas photo
When my younger brother was born, we stuffed him into a stocking for the annual Christmas photo

With the advent of Kodak’s ‘slimline’ greeting cards, the actual production of the card became a little easier. We still had to take time out for my dad to shoot the photo, but it was far less work on the back-end for him to create it.  The task of addressing and stamping all those cards, and I’m sure there were plenty because I have a large, extended family, fell to my mom.

I will always treasure this card of my sons with my parents. I photographed them together during one of my parents’ last visits to my home.

I have carried on the tradition in my own family. My three sons long ago learned that it was better just to go along with the yearly photo session than to protest.  One of my personal favorites is of them standing on our front walk, with the snow flurries flying around them.  Another that I’ll treasure for as long as I live is the one I took of my sons with my parents during one of their last visits to my home.

I like to believe now that they are young men that they actually appreciate my efforts.  I am sure they will once they have families of their own. Because over the years, it’s all those pictures that help us to share with others the way we lived and the people we loved.  During the holiday season, I display the photo cards my parents made.  It keeps my family close to me now that my mother has passed away and my father lives far away.  And they remind me of  holidays past. So while we live in an exciting era of instantaneous, electronic communication, I continue this old-fashioned practice of sending a personal, paper greeting card to my family and friends.  Perhaps, one day, my cards will become holiday heirlooms too.

This is one of my family favorites. I made this photo of my sons during a pre-Christmas snowstorm.
This is one of my family favorites. I made this photo of my sons during a pre-Christmas snowstorm.