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.


Mother Mary Charms Me

You may find it odd that I devote my Mother’s Day piece to someone else’s Mom. In fact, I could write about a lot of Mom’s I have known who have been big influences in my own life and never run out of material. But this time, I want to tell you a woman I met just last December when I photographed her and her family in my studio.

Her daughter from the San Francisco Bay area had set up a family studio portrait for when she and her 92-year-old mother would be in town visiting her sister.  It was becoming more difficult for her mother to travel, the daughter explained, so she wanted me to create a portrait of them while she was still able to make the trip.

When they arrived at my studio, her ‘girls’ helped her in. She sometimes used a wheelchair, especially since one foot hurt, but on this day, she walked in on her own with a cane and some assistance from her daughters.  She greeted me politely as she crossed the threshold with a warm smile and introduced herself as “Mary.”

Once inside, she slipped off her coat to reveal a bright, lipstick red glittery jersey top and jacket and black slacks that she was wearing. She and the girls had bought it, along with their own shimmery tops especially for our session. The color couldn’t have been a better choice for Mary. It complimented her own skin tones and the red-highlights in her hair. The glitter reflected a twinkle in her eye. I could tell that she felt quite special to be so dressed up.

Before heading into the camera study, I talked with her and the family, as I do with all of my portrait clients. Usually I meet clients prior to a photo session to plan our time together and to become acquainted before I photograph them. But it hadn’t been possible this time. Her daughters stepped into my little dressing room to straighten their hair, put on jewelry and check make-up. Meanwhile, Mary and I chatted.

Mary came to my studio with her two daughters for a family portrait together.
Mary came to my studio with her two daughters for a family portrait together.

I wanted to know a little bit about her, she belonged, after all, to one of the most fascinating and rapidly vanishing generations of our time. I told her that I once had family in the Bay Area who had moved there from the Midwest shortly before the World War II.  I wondered if she had grown up in San Francisco.

And with that, she opened up. No, she hadn’t grown up in San Francisco. She was raised in a small town in Oklahoma. During the War, she moved to Washington D.C. “I had taken typing in school,” she said. “I was pretty good typist too. When War broke out, they needed people in Washington.

“I had taken a typing test and passed it. My Daddy told me that I should apply. That I had taken that class and could type and I should apply.” As she spoke, I could picture her, a young woman, having grown up in the Depression, probably somewhere in the Dust Bowl as most of Oklahoma was.

“So I did,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I was hired! Can you imagine that?” she asked. “Here I was just a young girl from Oklahoma and now I was going to live in Washington. I had never been outside of Oklahoma and here I was going to Washington!”  I could hear in voice both wonder and pride, as if she had just received the news.

“Did you know anyone there?” I asked.

“No.” she said. “Only one other girl who was from Oklahoma too.”

Mary was quite at home with her two daughters during our studio portrait session.
Mary was quite at home with her two daughters during our studio portrait session.

It took two days by train to travel East to the nation’s capitol. What a ride it must have been, through country she had only read about in books. Once there, she found a room where her friend also lived. And then she started her new job working in one of the government’s many typing pools. As she told me her story, it was like we both landed back in time. Her face seemed brighter, her eyes sparkled and I’m sure she felt like the young woman again. I could see in her that Oklahoma girl, recently graduated from high school, leaving behind her parents and siblings, off to new experiences. Clearly, Mary was bit astonished by her youthful spirit. “Can you imagine that? a young girl like me, going off to Washington by herself,” she said again almost as if trying to convince herself that it had actually happened.

I agreed that it was a very bold and adventurous thing for her to have done, but it was wartime after all, and people of that era did many bold things that they never thought they would.

We moved into the camera study. I seated Mary in a chair, careful not to bump her sore foot. I arranged her in a way that would work for the pictures but that would also be comfortable for her as it would be difficult to shift her around during our session. She appeared relaxed and ready to start. I began by taking images of the entire family. I worked quickly not wanting Mary to tire. After finishing those images, her son-in-law departed, his part of the photo session completed. Her daughters went to change for some additional images of just the two of them with their Mom. Mary stayed put in the chair. It was just the two of us in the camera study.

“How about we do some just of you?” I suggested while we waited. I knew that the daughters also wanted a portrait of their mother alone.

Working in the studio with Mary was a delight. She told me about her adventures as a young woman.
Working in the studio with Mary was a delight. She told me about her adventures as a young woman.

She agreed. I asked her to lean against the arm of the chair. She did. Then the magic happened. Without any direction, Mary became a model before the camera re-positioning her hands, tilting her head (I may have asked her to do that), striking a pose that I imagined she either remembered from a time gone by or had seen once in a magazine. Years came off and back. Mary clearly was enjoying being the center of my camera’s attention as much as I was enjoying photographing her. Her smile broadened and once again I saw that twinkle in her eyes, the young woman from Oklahoma headed out on her own. Who did she have in head? Some of the ‘glamour girls’ from the 1940s? I mused. Or maybe just the younger version of herself.

When the session was over I asked if the girls and their mother were planning to go to dinner since they were all dressed so festively. They hadn’t planned on it, but now that I mentioned it, the daughters agreed it would be a good idea. Off they went.

Later, one of her daughters told me how much they all had enjoyed the experience. “You know, my Mom was so anxious about it,” she said. “and I really didn’t know how she would do. But she had a wonderful time.”

I was surprised to learn she had been so anxious but pleased that she at felt at ease with me. I had made a new friend in Mary. I felt she had shared with me some precious memories and allowed me to see her in another light. And I was grateful. Now, whenever I speak to her daughter on the phone, I always ask about her mother and to please relay my best. Our connection was brief, but it was a connection. I hope Mary had a Happy Mother’s Day.

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.


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.

Author! Author!

It’s not everyday that someone I know publishes a book although I must admit, being a writer myself and having many friends and colleagues who are professional writers,  I do know several published authors.   Lately,  a few of those I know have new works out there so thought I’d call your attention to some of them.

First off, I must congratulate my own brother, Richard, for his first published book.  He’s been working on it off  and on for the past three years and finally completed it earlier this summer.  It’s just now available.  Richard is an ordained minister and Biblical scholar who has served as a college campus minister, taught college and seminary classes in addition to having been a full-time church pastor.  He currently lives in my hometown where he and his wife, Nola are of infinite help to my parents and where he works on his books.

I took Richard book jacket portrait this summer while visiting my family at home.

His book:  “Finding God in the Seasons of Divorce” is published by WestBow Press and is a daily devotional for individuals working through the emotions and difficulties of divorce.  This first volume, Autumn and Winter, deals with the early days of divorce, when so much of life is falling apart, becoming so difficult and uncertain.  As Richard says:  “The book helps readers learn how to cope and to see that they are not alone, that God does care, and that the struggles have been faced by others as well.”

The idea for the book came after his 1998 divorce, when opportunities for his ministering to divorcing individuals opened.  His has a keen awareness of the devastating impact divorce has on couples, children, and extended family .  His own struggles and experiences in ministry bring personal impact to these pages.

At a recent regional gathering of churches of his denomination, one minister who purchased a copy told Richard that he intends to use it as a discussion guide for his local ministers’ group, simply to help them understand better what parishioners getting divorced are experiencing, and how to better address their needs.

If you, or someone you know,  is divorced or in the process of divorcing, consider having a look at Richard’s book.  He also now has a blog that you
can follow with additional insights and words of encouragement for those experiencing this very emotional time.You can find the book on-line at: or follow Richard on his blog at:  He’s also created a Facebook page for the book under its title.

I’m very proud of his accomplishment!

I’ll be featuring yet another new work written by colleague and client Nancy Keene, in an upcoming blog post so please, keep following!