from The Nervous Breakdown

October 15, 2009

She says she takes so many pictures of us because she loves us so much that she just has to capture any moment in which we’re all together, and she takes pictures of other people’s families because they’re always happy when they get them from her afterward. But I think it’s more of a compulsion. Whenever her mind is allowed to rest, whenever she doesn’t have something pressing to do, she thinks, I must take a picture! I must capture this, whatever it is!

For almost thirty years, every December she managed to get my sisters, brother, and me to sit and stand and crouch and kneel in a hundred combinations, grinning like idiots while she clicked her way through dozens of shots. Then she’d agonize over them for a week before selecting the best one for the holiday card.

When we were little, it was cute.

But later, like for instance when puberty was totally fucking with my complexion and my features and I had braces and was asked to wear my sister as a backpack, it wasn’t so cute.

Over time, these yearly photo shoots engendered some hostility among the children. We would groan and protest, but she always wore us down, and we’d end up throwing our arms around each other (or hopping on each others’ backs, I guess) and smiling.

“Come on, a real smile, Jeremy!”

“How can I smile for real when I don’t feel like smiling? Any smile I give you is going to be fake.”

“Well, fake it better! One, two, three! One… two…”

“Mom — we don’t need the count.”

My mom’s 25-year streak of posed holiday photos was broken when my brother Michael and I were living in New York and were thus unavailable for the holiday photo session. She was forced to choose from vacation photos, and the process was so much less painful that we decided this was how we’d do it from now on. This also forced her to learn how to use Photoshop, to, I think, great effect:


In the summer of 2004, my mom and dad took all of us to Europe. My mom had recently gotten her first digital camera, and it was too much for her to handle. Without having to reload film, with the ability to take so many pictures so quickly, she lost all self-control. Every moment seemed ripe to her for a possible holiday card picture.

In Brussels she got us everywhere: waiting at the baggage claim, sitting in the taxi, lying on the hotel beds, eating, standing on cobblestones in front of old buildings, sprawled on the steps of old buildings, staring at paintings inside old buildings, posing tiredly (and to the annoyance of onlookers at left) in a beer garden.

“Michael, don’t make a face. And open your eyes. Both of them!”

“I have a lazy eyelid. And I’m sensitive about it, so thanks a lot for pointing it out.”

In Bruges she took pictures of us chewing waffles, glaring at her in front of the Belfort, walking away from her in front of some cathedral. (”We’re Jews, mom,” Rebecca said. “We don’t give a shit about churches.”) The pictures are a time-lapse study in the disintegration of patience.

Back then my mom still clung to these outdated ideas in her head of how we should look, and she hadn’t yet found a way to reconcile that with the sad fact of our actual appearance. On the platform waiting for the train to Amsterdam, she whipped out the camera. “Rebecca, take off your glasses. I want to see your face.”

“My glasses are part of my face. Deal with it.”

“Jennifer, why don’t you ever wear your hair down? Let it down. Michael, look at me.”

Michael looked at her for a second, and looked away before she was ready.

“Oh, come on!”

She took the picture anyway. She couldn’t resist.

At this point Jennifer was the only one who seemed to have any good will left. But she’d always been the sweetest of all of us. And the most willing to humor my mom:

Our first morning in Amsterdam, my mom took pictures of us outside of Anne Frank’s house. Fortunately it was so crowded inside that she didn’t try to get us to pose in front of the false bookcase or act like we were sneaking around the attic.

She took pictures of us at the Jewish Historical Museum, on canal bridges, at Rembrandt’s house, in front of the museum of film and television. By the afternoon, we kids were burnt out, and our highs from a quick coffeeshop visit had faded into dull headaches.

My mom and dad wanted to go on a canal-boat tour. It sounded nice to me. The guidebook said you hadn’t really seen Amsterdam until you’d seen it from the water. My sisters complained, but they didn’t know how to get back to the hotel their ow

n. Damrak, where you could catch the boats, didn’t look that far on the map, and we were too many for a taxi, so we walked as the sun came out from behind the clouds. We walked and walked.

By the Amstel River, my mom, who’d started to lag behind a little, shouted, “Wait, guys. I want to take a picture. Come on, get together.”

There were some scruffy backpackers sitting on a bench right behind my mother, and I didn’t feel like putting on a show for them. I tried to keep walking, but my mother just shouted louder, “Come on! Jeremy, where are you going? Come back!”

I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder. She was waving frantically at me. I despised her for a few seconds, and then I despised myself, for causing exactly the scene I didn’t want to cause. I walked back.

We stood near each other, but that wasn’t good enough. “Take your sunglasses off.” The sun was directly in our eyes, and there was grumbling, but we complied, squinting. “Come on, open your eyes!”

Now Michael started to walk away. Jennifer grabbed him by the shirt. He called her a bitch for stretching out his shirt. She told him he was an asshole. We stood together, but my mom couldn’t get the camera to work. The people on the bench stared at us like maybe we were street performers. We were so loud and petty and American, surely one of us was going to end up in the canal and then my brother was going to take off his hat and pass it around for donations.

Sweaty and exhausted, we finally made it to the canal-boat ticket window just as a boat was leaving. We had to wait in the sun for a half-hour, and a line of about a hundred people formed behind us. I was behind my brother and my dad, so I didn’t see what happened next.

According to Rebecca, one of the boat guys had finally lifted the rope to let people board, and she began walking forward behind my mom. Rebecca didn’t see the official photographer perched next to the gangway, and so when my mom stopped suddenly, saying, “Oh — a picture! Come on, let’s take a picture!” Rebecca accidentally bumped into her.

“I mean, who needs a fucking professional boarding shot for an hour boat ride?” she said later. “Does this moment need to be recorded?”

So she just sort of bumped my mom. And my mom, overheated, her legs shaky from hours of walking, stumbled. One of her legs slipped into the gap between the boat and the dock, and she went down. Then the boat swung closer to the dock, acting like a vice on her thigh. She screamed.

My dad and brother rushed forward to pull her up. The photographer and a deck hand pushed against the boat with their feet. They got her back onto the dock, where she sat, shaking and rubbing her leg. All of the people lined up to get on the boat had pushed forward and gathered around us so that they could get a look at the spectacle.

“What happened?” my dad asked.

My mom pointed up at Rebecca, “She pushed me!”

Rebecca shifted on the fly from concern to indignation. “I did not! You tripped! She tripped!”

“No!” My mom shouted as my dad helped her to her feet. She tested her leg and winced. “You pushed me! I just wanted to stop and take a picture and you pushed me!”

“Mom!” Jennifer hissed. “Why would she push you? She loves you. It was an accident.”

“No,” my mom insisted. “No. No. No.” She’d peered into the abyss, and it had terrified her.

“I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose,” my dad said. “Can you walk?”

I was still speechless, but I thought, Nobody died. Let’s get the hell out of here. Grab a couple taxis, go straight to the airport and get on the first plane. We can send for our luggage.

But no. My mom had paid for a boat ride and she had waited in line for a boat ride, and she was going on a goddamned boat ride. And now that she had suffered a near-death experience for it, there was no way we could abandon her. She hobbled onto the boat with my dad, and did they go to the back of the boat, or at least the middle, to hide among the crowd?

No. They took seats in the second row, because they have no shame. My sisters led the way to seats six rows behind them. I followed my siblings, hoping that maybe if we didn’t all sit together, people wouldn’t recognize us as That Family.

That hope was crushed by mom’s shouting over people’s heads at Rebecca, “I can’t believe you pushed me! And no one even asked me if I’m OK.”

That wasn’t totally true, but she’d forfeited a lot of sympathy. You just don’t accuse a family member of assault in public.

Rebecca’s face was ashen. “I didn’t push her,” she said. “Maybe I bumpedher a little, but it was an accident.”

“Of course it was,” Jennifer said.

The other tourists stared at my mom and dad, and then at us, as they walked down the aisle. Then, as if trotted out by God expressly for our benefit, a group of blind teenagers boarded the boat. They smiled faintly as they took small, shuffling steps behind their guides.

I envied those blind kids. They never knew when people were staring at them, had no idea I was staring at them.

It turned out that the blind kids didn’t see much less on that boat than we did. The windows were so foggy and water-spotted that the gabled houses were just blurry shapes looming over us. A crackly recorded voice described what we were seeing in five languages. One might have been English, but the speakers were so poor I couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, the blind kids sat serene as Buddhist monks, their guileless faces turned up toward the sun, their badly cut hair blowing in the cool breeze that came off the water.

When we returned to the dock, my mom hobbled off the boat with my dad. By the time the rest of us made it onto the sidewalk, she was waiting, camera in hand.

“Well, that sucked,” she grinned and pulled her camera up to her face. “Come on, you guys. Get together!”