So normally at this time of year, my wife and daughter spend a long, excruciating Saturday at the dance studio for Picture Day. Typically — and gratefully — I orbit beyond the gravity of this black hole. From a distance I appreciate it to be a 10-hour, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, costume changes, drama, yelling, teen angst, pasted smiles, and despair.
Saturday morning, my wife made a vague reference to “Picture Day,” and “Dad helping,” which I took in stride as my wife, the kidder, exercising her playful side.
Had I thought deeply in the moment, I would’ve remembered that my wife (a.) is not a kidder, and (b.) has no appreciable playful side.
Since the studio is shut down due to the pandemic, all photos have to be DIY.
So around noon, Karry informs me of the executional guardrails: all white background, no visible wall outlets, good lighting.
Our house is old, tiny, and meets NONE of the aforementioned criteria. As such, it offers few places for me to hide. So, before I know it, I’m push-pinning a sheet to the wall, moving the dining room table, and gazing through my son’s I-phone (best camera in the house) to see if we can frame a scene that approximates the guardrails while excluding the ‘tender clutter’ of our dining room.
Full disclosure: I am in no way qualified for the task. The only reason I’m holding the camera is that (a.) Karry has to iron and steam 12 costumes, (b.) it’s the early afternoon, therefore my son is still in bed, and (c.) Emma has to be in the pictures.
My daughter has been dancing for 11 years, during which I’ve watched from afar, apart. I’m a seat in a theater, participating only in a support role, loading bags and luggage, occasionally dropping off, picking up. I’ve watched every single one of her dances with a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach … wanting her to kill it, recognizing I have no bearing on the outcome. It is she, alone, on stage, buoyed only by her genuine love for the craft, her discipline, countless hours of practice, a full heart, and her desire to simply do her very best. While I would love to believe that she’s My Girl on that stage, she is not. It’s hard for me to admit that, when I see the game face, the make-up, the costumes. She is herself. Strong. Confident. Prepared. And while I’m sure fear is somewhere in the equation, she’s never afraid. With hundreds of hours of practice under her belt, it’s merely a question of execution.
Awes me every time.
So, with the camera in my hand I establish three goals for myself, two obvious, one surreptitious.
Try not to displease my wife (the goal I roll out of bed every day with, and usually blow before exiting the breakfast table).
Keep a steady hand.
My third goal is humble, and, admittedly, purely selfish. I just want to crack her game face. I want to see through the make-up, the costumes, the stage smile and catch a glimpse of … My Girl, the one I never get to see from my seat in the theater.
As with most things I am not good at, I compensate with enthusiasm. I ask myself, ‘How would a professional photographer, with no studio, shitty lighting, and a postage stamp for a scene, approach the challenge?’
I have no idea, but am confident it wasn’t the path I chose.
“Show me the feisty kitty cat.”
Within minutes, I had her nearly peeing her pants, while I fell completely afoul of Goal #1.
But I got my shot.
From there I operated for the next six hours more or less within acceptable tolerances. I waited patiently between costume changes, and, where possible, tried to coax a smile beyond the practiced, painted on variety. Emma was a trooper. We both were working from a severely limited repertoire – she, restricted by the parameters of our dining room; me, restricted by my meager skills.
And while it was still an all-day, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, and costume changes … the circumstances left little room (figuratively and literally) for the drama, yelling, teen angst and despair that normally mark the proceedings. Aside from the quality of the pictures, I didn’t make things worse. And I got to participate in a ritual that, for 11 years, has been exclusively a mother-daughter affair.
I have no idea if what we were able to capture will meet the studio’s executional guardrails. The brown paneled floor peeked through the white runner, casting it a different shade than the sheet hanging on the wall. Our lighting was slipshod, casting shadows. We could only take so many poses, given the cozy confines.
But there were a few shots, that, even if they don’t make it into the program, I will treasure. A few that maybe didn’t show off the costume or the make-up, but did justice to the beautiful smile that I’ve watched from the best seat — not in the theater, but in our house — for 15 years and counting… watching it grow from gracing the most adorable chubby cheeks in the universe to gracing the most beautiful soul this side of her mother.
A couple weeks ago Karry was violently cleaning out out the dining room, rooting through old drawers, filling garbage bags with stuff she didn’t want to think twice about. Of the two of us, she is, by far, the most qualified for the task. My wife is not the sentimental type. I, on the other hand, ensure that my wife will always have drawers to clean out. But in the midst of her editing, something gave her enough pause to seek me out downstairs. She tossed an envelope on my desk. “Yeah, you probably forgot about that one.”
On the outside of the envelope, my handwriting:
Inside, a letter. From me to my baby boy. Days before our first Christmas together.
I have no recollection of doing this.
Which is exactly why I did it.
I learned quickly during those eight months that time was no longer to be fucked with. From the moment Dr. Bulseco announced, “It’s a Boy,” we became unwitting passengers on a turbo steamroller, and would spend as much time under it as in the cab.
So, early on I made a point to mark time whenever I could steal a moment. Scribbles in a journal. Postcards from the road. Notes on a computer.
And evidently, letters to my baby.
I did this knowing that whatever I captured would be at best a fractional approximate to the real deal — a few grains of sand brought back from an infinite beach.
I just had a hunch that someday down the road, we might like to be reminded how beautiful things were.
I got that one right.
December 23, 2001
A couple days ago, it occurred to me that, when you’re older, you will have no recollection of how much joy you have brought to the lives of your mom (after eight months, still weird to write that) and me. You’ll have no idea how excited we are to be spending Christmas – your first – with you in our house. If anything, you’ll get sick and tired of hearing your old, un-hip parents remind you how cute you were, how anyone who saw you couldn’t stop from smiling. (I hope at least we’ll have the common sense not to show your naked bath time pictures to your teenage friends.) From personal experience, I know that these memories will forever be a part of your parent’s lives. Realizing this, I find the repetitive stories my father tells and re-tells at every family gathering (“I remember the first time Pete saw the Monongahela River …” “Pete could identify every car when he was two….” etc.) more tolerable. I smile, knowing now that the joy a child can bring is irrepressible, undaunted by time. Like me, you’ll just have to get used to it.
But to give you a more refined glimpse into Christmases (and memories) past, I’d like to start a tradition here today, two days before your first Christmas. Drafting a quick letter to record some of my thoughts while they are freshest, to at least help you distinguish between myth and reality when those embarrassing anecdotes come calling in the (hopefully) many holidays to come. Right now, you’re too busy trying out the newest consonant sounds (finally, “mamamamaama,” which Karry has been not-so-patiently waiting eight months for) to be bothered with taking stock of life as an eight month old. Hope this helps.
Last Saturday, your mom and I picked up some pictures at Giant Eagle before hitting the malls. We parked the car in the fire lane outside the entrance to the video store. When your mom returned to the car, we tore into the pictures like you’ll soon be tearing into your Christmas presents. There were pictures from your baptism (a Riddell family photo, us holding you, you with fingers full of icing), from Halloween (you sleeping on the couch in the pumpkin outfit Granny made you), you after returning from the Washington Christmas parade (totally sacked out in your crib dressed in your Santa suit), you totally enamored with the ornament boxes piled around you while your mom and dad decorated the Christmas tree.
After we reviewed the last one, your mom looked at me and said, “The world just went away there for a few minutes.” It’s hard to describe what we both felt at that moment any better than she did. Each picture we flipped through took us right back to that moment in time. For those few seconds, we weren’t in the parking lot at the Giant Eagle. We weren’t 30-year-olds trying to figure out life (and struggling mightily). We weren’t Christmas shoppers. We had no other care than marveling at the incredible gift you are to us. The power of those pictures will never wane, either. Twenty years from now, we will still completely lose ourselves in looking at you at your baptism, your first Halloween, your first Christmas.
Now, in the other room, your mom is changing your dirty diaper. I now thank you for holding off when I changed and fed you when you awoke earlier this morning. You had us cracking up at the crack of dawn, talking incessantly in your crib. Gurgling, ba-bahs, ga-gahs, and what sounded like a purring kitten, complementing the aforementioned mamamas. I tried giving you your binky and turning on your lullaby, in a vain attempt to coax another half-hour’s worth of sleep from you. To no avail.
The unquestioned highlight of every day is when I return from work. Your mom almost always has you propped up in the hallway to be the first thing I see when I come up the stairs. And, without fail, you greet me with the biggest smile, so happy to see me (almost as happy as Sadie, who manages to sit perfectly still for the only time all day while I pet her upon entering the garage). Your are 20 pounds of instant stress relief. In the time it takes for that smile to break across your chubby cheeks, all of my problems disappear. And the amazing thing is that you have no idea the power you have. You just like to play … to chew … and to slobber. And it’s more than enough to get us through the day. I hope as you read this, you can appreciate that. If not, wait until you become a dad.
So, what’s it like to be a new parent? Not easy. Your mom and me have less time to do more. It’s been a tough adjustment at times. For me, I’m learning to become less selfish. When you are not the center of your own universe anymore, it’s an adjustment.
Make no mistake, though, your mom keeps this house together. She keeps things (including you and me) in order. It’s amazing to watch how she’s become a mother. It’s not something you can really prepare for. To say it’s instinct doesn’t do justice to all the hard work and love she puts into it. But she’s good. She’s a natural at all the things that I have to think through, and usually screw up. Like bathing you (once I sat you in the tub with your diaper on), picking out your clothes (the last time I dressed you unsupervised was also the last time your socks haven’t matched), your breakfast (I fed you the two jars of food she set out, not knowing you were only to have half of each). She has put you at the center of her life. And you are lucky. Try and remember that when she gets on your nerves, or when you tells you no. There’s no one in this world who loves you more.
Okay, so what are you like at eight months? What are your likes and dislikes? A quick summary:
food — which you define in broader terms than the average adult. Food to you is anything that will fit inside your mouth. We always crack up when you see us eating in front of you. You completely lose interest in everything except following the food from our plate to our mouth. And the look on your face of complete concentration … expressionless captivation …, which, believe me, is hilarious coming from an eight month old.
Granny — you beam every time you see Grandma Fordyce, and vice versa. She’s been a true Godsend for us. She’s come in and watched you while we’ve worked around the house. She’s watched you to allow us those precious but much needed dinners for two. She keeps us sane and keeps you happy. We are as lucky as you are.
having your teeth brushed — you get so excited when you see your mom or me brushing our teeth. Lately, we’ve been taking a wet tooth brush and asking if you want your two brushed as well. You immediately open your mouth and smile as we run it across your bottom lip. Such a big boy.
lights, fans (and anything you can get your hands on, really) — I love the way you marvel at the world around you. Your mouth gets as round as a snowball, and you gasp in wonder, “Oh” or “Ah” … as you take it all in. You have reminded us what it means to be awed.
The Boogie Patrol — your mother is vigilant in making sure you don’t leave the house with visible boogers. So she is forever sticking Q-Tips in your nostrils to ensure an unobstructed air passage. This always pisses you off.
being on your belly — don’t know if it’s the struggle to elevate your beautiful head, but your patience always wears thin when flopped on your gut. My hypothesis is that you’ll eventually become so angry you’ll start rolling, but your mother usually intervenes to stop your impressively intense crying.
As you can see your likes outnumber your dislikes. But, with parents like us, what’s not to like?
Well, I apologize for the length of this letter. I only kept writing because I had time to do so (your mom has not asked me for anything the past hour). And I know that my bouts of inspiration are usually fleeting. This may be the last letter you ever get from me. But I hope it’s the first of many.
As you get older, and the real parenting kicks in, know that I’ll do my best. I’ll probably screw up, but you will, too. And at the end of the day, you’ll still be the most incredible gift I’ve ever been given.
We’re gonna have fun, you and me.
Our baby boy turns 19 today.
At the moment, Karry’s hanging Disney decorations in the dining room she worked hard to clean out … and Emma’s in beast mode preparing a by-big-brother-request dinner of fettuccini Alfredo. She made him a double-layer chocolate chip cookie cake for dessert. The presents will be humble, but enough.