Greg's Fourth Birthday
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  • Greg's Fourth Birthday
Greg Graham

Photography changes the ways we understand ourselves

Story by visitor contributor
Greg Graham

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Greg Graham, a First-Year Writing Composition teacher at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a member of the National Writing Project, explains how family photos influence self-understanding.

In the bedroom that my two youngest sons share, a picture of me with all of my siblings hangs. That bedroom is the only “sibling” room in our house, and the story the picture tells is a story of siblings.

I am in the middle, with my sisters on each side of me and my brothers on the outside. Glowing on the table in front of me is a homemade white birthday cake – Banana Cream I believe – with four candles on top. It is my fourth birthday, and we are wearing birthday hats. The crowning achievement of the photograph is that all five of us are wearing full-sized grins. We are adorable.

My brother Chris, the second born, sits on the far left and leans slightly away from the rest of us. My sisters and I, the three youngest, clump together in the middle. I am ever-so-slightly drawn back. On the far right is the eldest son, David. He leans forward and into the picture, hovering preeminently over the rest of us.

I have always belonged to my sisters more than my brothers. Perhaps this is because we are closest in age. Linda and I were inseparable in our early years. With her bright blonde hair and ice cream blue eyes, she was the classic baby of the family and a momma’s girl; but she was, above all, my best buddy. My connection with Levian was of an entirely different nature. She and I shared “middle child” status. Though she was officially in the middle of the birth order, I had my share of the “middle” experience as well. David and Chris, referred to by my parents as “the boys,” shared a bedroom. Levian and Linda, referred to as “the girls,” also roomed together. In what one might consider the luck of the draw, I had my own room. But I’m not sure I was lucky. I know that my sons Ethan and Zach, who are now eleven and twelve, wince at the prospect of splitting up into private quarters. Though they don’t want to broadcast the fact, they find comfort being together in their bunk beds, talking into the darkness every night as they fade to sleep.

Maybe it was my nocturnal solo status, or perhaps it was my failure to qualify as one of “the boys,” but I was the lost child in my family. In the picture, everyone is staring directly into the camera – except me. This is a little unusual because I am, after all, the birthday boy. My eyes are diverted toward something or someone other than the picture-taker. There is a disconnect from what is actually happening, a searching for something outside my family of origin. This foretells my future, because early in life I sought to “find myself” among my peers, away from my family. This never changed for me. My detachment in the photograph is not only evidenced through my diverted eyes, but in all of my facial features – especially my smile. Chris’s smile seems the purest to me, like the grin is busting forth from his gut as he gathers in my mom behind the camera. Levian is trying to smile the biggest and the best. I can almost hear my father’s famous words repeated countless times to Levian: “Don’t force it, honey.” Linda smiles delicately, holding back a bit so as not to steal the spotlight. David smiles the devil’s smile, reminding each of us that at any moment he could smash our faces into the cake and eat it off our eyelids. My grin betrays a hint of uncertainty, a faint doubt in my mind as to whether or not I belong. Where do such thoughts come from? And how do they manage to follow us all through life?

Though my insides have been jumbled with self-doubt for as long as I can remember, as a child I was as amiable as they come. I was the easy one – low maintenance you might say. But the image of my eyes looking askance and my hesitant grin tells a story unveiled by the years. All along I was slightly drawn back. All along I was looking away. All along I was searching elsewhere for my identity. All along I was clumped in the middle, clinging to the comfort of my sisters on each side. And the ones in charge had no way of knowing. They just snapped the picture and remarked, “Well, that looks good, doesn’t it.”

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