School picture day, 1979. I practiced this smile in the mirror a dozen times. This day was going to be different. All of the things I hated about my face were going to be wiped away by this perfect smile. No more squinty, lopsided eyes. I had discovered that I could hide my bushy eyebrows under my bangs if I lifted them high enough. I finally had all my teeth. Hair combed and clean…
My palms sweated as I stood in line. I adjusted my blue velour top so that the button lined up right between my collar bones. No one would see my bright white tennies but knowing they were brand new gave me confidence. My turn came.
I had one shot to execute the perfect smile. Then, the agony of waiting.
When the pictures arrived a few weeks later, I couldn’t wait for my name to be called. I was not one of those kids who could handle anticipation. I once opened every present under the Christmas tree when my dad and stepmom were at work and rewrapped them so they wouldn’t know. I felt compelled to prepare myself for the disappointment or relief. So, when the teacher handed me my picture packet, I instantly looked at the photo peeking out of the crunchy plastic peep hole and saw enough to relax as I walked back to my seat.
I was twitchy the whole bus ride home from school. I didn’t know it at the time, but that delicious feeling was called joy. Endorphins were good things. But physically, it felt similar to when I ran from the girl who bullied me, stumbling, falling, and then bracing myself for the kicks that would follow. I was rightfully suspicious of this happiness.
I ran all the way home from the bus stop and couldn’t wait to show the pictures to my Mom. I knew she’d love them and she did.
“You look beautiful! You look like your Dad,” she said.
My parents divorced when I was a year old so I always dreaded it when either of them mentioned the other. But I secretly loved it when my mom told me that I looked like my Dad. It was always a compliment and when she’d say it, I caught a glimpse of how they could’ve loved each other at one time. I also thought, ok crazy lady, whatever you say because as far as I was concerned, I looked nothing like my Dad. How could you really know when you couldn’t even see his face? He had a mountain man beard, bushy eyebrows and a prominent nose. The one thing that stood out of his olive complexion was his startling pale ocean eyes. I saw no resemblance between us at all but I knew that she must’ve seen him differently so I reveled in the comparison.
It wasn’t until years later when I was given my parents’ old wedding pictures that I saw how exactly I looked like them both. My Dad, beardless and dressed in a suit. My mom, petite and smiling widely. My parents, who I had literally never seen in the same room together during my childhood, were together in those pictures. I understood the wistfulness in my Mom’s voice when she told me that I looked like my Dad.
When I see that school picture from the 4th grade, I think of the things I hope to protect my children from, like bullying and divorce. I’m also reminded that my parents had a whole lifetime before I was born and I may never understand why they fell in and out of love but I see how I am forever and inextricably connected to both of them. I also see my son’s smile and my daughter’s big brown eyes. This is how we start to heal our lineage. We are linked across time.
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