At Blendon Woods, a metro park outside Columbus, the Olan Mills photographer directs us to run up a small embankment toward him. We stop at the top, smile, lean forward as if we are mid-step into some great family adventure. It is 1971. We all roll our eyes. Through a clenched smile, my sister says, “Oh, my fucking God.” Claudia, my father’s girlfriend and the woman responsible for this sibling portrait, can’t hear us grumbling. She shouts encouragement down to us while she stands at the photographer’s side.
We scramble up the hill, losing our footing, hindered by dress shoes Claudia insists that we wear. I pull at my too short dress. My brother Gerry struggles to keep his glasses on, cursing. We get to the top, freezing motion as soon as the photographer holds up his hand; we grit our teeth and smile. Snap. The photographer says:
And again. Snap, snap. And one more time. Snap. Gerry, climb up and sit on the lowest branch of this tree. Peter, stand with one leg on that log. Meggie, look up at Gerry. Ann, look across at David. David, stop. Don’t move, just smile. Snap.
This is a special circle of hell reserved for single-parented kids: your father’s first steady girlfriend since divorce and her romantic vision that mates the Von Trapp family with the Brady Bunch. We are neither.
The photo is her surprise gift for my dad. She offers him a moment in time, a memory. No one anticipates that when my father marries—not Claudia but Pam— five years later, the photo will disappear from his dresser and into a drawer, replaced by portraits of their new life. It resurfaced decades later, after my father died and my step-mother gave me a box of memories belonging to the time before their marriage.
My brother and I shared a “damn you, Olan Mills” moment on Facebook, which, I’ll admit, made all the grumbling we had done worth it.