Your family has just always had this tradition.
It has become a December ritual, like hanging garlands around staircase railings, your dad perennially wrestling globe lights around your house’s tiny boxwoods, and your mother trying to convince him that no, dear we really don’t need a eight-foot tree this year when a four foot one will do, but somehow ending up with a huge one anyway.
You and your family’s likenesses, from ages eight to eighteen, have been captured for time immemorial by the photo attendants at Sears and dear god, you gave them hell for it. Someone was always shutting their eyes, and your little brother never smiled enough past age seven.
(You always thought this was terribly unfair, since he never had to have braces and you did– for four years, too– and yet somehow you manage to whip up a metallic grin as he stares tight-lipped at a lens.)
The whole process of family photos was also mutually exhausting to your parents, but they did it anyway. Your dad kept them in his wallet and your mom sent them out with the Christmas cards. Your mom was a bit disappointed by your wardrobe during your teenage years, because “you looked so good in tights and your velvet dresses!” but you managed to outgrow both tights and velvet dresses in the same cataclysmic moment and have not worn them since.
As a bribe to please smile, damn it, your parents would take you and your brother out for dinner at a restaurant called Bugaboo Creek, conveniently located near the Sears where you’d make the ritual walk between bright red Craftsmans and patio furniture, then up the escalator to where the photographers hid out before it became the clothing section.
The moose was your favorite animal at the restaurant, mostly because it was a moose and you’d had a moose stuffed animal as a little kid and therefore felt a special kinship with it, and also because the moose was the most awesome talking animal head there.
Somehow your family has decided that this year it is you who must take the annual Christmas photo.
You’re not sure why. Your mom says it’s because you’re the best at taking pictures and you have the best phone. Also it was your idea to do Christmas plants as the theme.
Your dad–who, after years of camcording you and your brother (the first time you realized how strange your voice sounded out of your head) has more experience than you and took family photos the last three Christmases– is benignly silent. Your little brother has the newest phone in the house and spends more time on instagram than you but just smiles and shrugs.
So here you are, squinting at your cell phone camera. You are taking pictures separately this year, because your mom is holly, you’re amaryllis, your dad is poinsettia, and your brother is mistletoe and damned if you can fit all those plants into a single frame.
The lighting is too bright and your dad insists on having holly bowers in his poinsettia picture, despite the fact that your mom is holly and the dogs are trying to eat the berries.
You take pictures and tell your parents to smile.
A few days after you drive back to your apartment in another state, you and your mom have a phone call.
“You’re lucky, you know that?” She says. “You haven’t really experienced loss in your life.”
You remind her that your first dog died when you were eight. You’d stopped believing in god after that, but you don’t tell her this part. You also don’t say that sometimes losing someone close to you when they’re still alive hurts like a motherfucker, because you’re sure she knows this too and you don’t need advice, don’t want it.
You tell her instead that you remember your dad’s parents before they died.
“I wasn’t sure you did.” Her voice turns contemplative. “You were still young.”
And you hate it, that you were five or six, because you were still young and the clearest memory of them you have is in their attic after their death, going through things with your dad, just you and your dad because your kid brother was still an infant home with your mom.
Your dad had unearthed a metal bank shaped like a cash register and another shaped like a silver rocket. He’d said that these were toys from him, his brother, and his sister’s childhoods and would let you choose one and give the other to your brother when he got old enough for it.
You chose the cash register, because it was red and because you liked cash registers. And like a total asshole, a few months later you jammed it trying to put two nickels into its coin slot at once. It had worked with dimes and quarters, so why not, right?
As it turns out, you have never really forgiven yourself for wrecking the only thing you have from your dad’s parents.
As is customary, the family photo devolves into merry chaos.
Your mother made the hilarious decision to give your brother a kissing ball for his photo with his girlfriend of seven years, and in between takes he’s been singing “kissing ball, kiss my balls” in his loud tenor. His girlfriend smacks him but laughs, even though in half their pictures he is still not quite smiling right and has one eyebrow comically raised.
Somehow, your parents find a red fedora of your brother’s and everyone remains convinced it must feature in at least one photo. You don’t really like it, but considering you were the one who glued feathers into it so it would be a suitable hat for your Red Death costume one Halloween, you can’t really veto it.
Your dad is trying to be the poinsettia, but maybe the lighting’s wrong because the hat makes him look older than you know he is. You have him take it off, stop sitting on the floor between poinsettia plants, do something else instead.
Your mom actually wears it better, your brother tells her she looks good in his pimp hat, and you get the best picture of her in her holly garland boa, vogueing in a fuzzy, feathery red hat.
Your parents are getting older, and this year you are taking the Christmas photos. Your dad will stitch them together on his laptop into a four-way window of plants and people that will join the past four years of goofy family pictures you guys started taking since you graduated high school and your family decided it had had enough of torturing the photogs at Sears.
Those photos are still around, still in the box in the living room cataloguing your family over the years. They have gotten stranger, sure, but the ritual remains. There are even some of your family when it was just you, your mom, and your dad, before your brother was born. And there are some of your grandparents, people who appear unfailingly in a long string of pictures and then, one year, drop off.
So maybe this is the year that you bust out your mini-Craftsman, decide you’re half-good with tools by now, and figure out how to get two nickels unstuck. When you stop being so ashamed that you ruined the one nice thing you had to remember your grandparents by, and you start fixing it instead.
Because you’re old enough that you’re okay with being lucky.
You are telling your parents to ham it up for the formerly serious, always dramatic, annual Christmas photo. Your dad is a bit too hidden by his three massive poinsettias and inexplicable holly to actually be the poinsettia, your mom is trying to prevent the dogs from all dying by berry ingestion, your kid brother is crooning lewd things to this house of dorks, and you are lucky.