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Picturing the Card, Then and Now

As a mother of two small boys, I now know why my mom took us to a professional photographer for our annual Christmas-card picture. I have entered that parenting phase that might have been known back then as the "Dennis the Menace" zone. Around our house, we call today's generation of photo shenanigans "the revenge of Calvin and Hobbes."

It's all part of the territory with two small boys. Our oldest is full of first-grade wisdom and bathroom humor. At four and a critical half, our younger boy is a more-than-willing acolyte to his brother's antics. An angelic photo of their sweet, smiling faces? Just getting a shot in which they're both looking at the camera, with a pair of mugs that don't include tongues sticking out or index fingers pulling back the corners of their mouths - that is truly a rare thing.

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It used to be easy. In fact, before our younger son was born, I never had to decide which picture I'd send around for the holidays: I'd just take a stack of photos and send a different one to everyone on my card list. "Loved the picture!" I'd hear over and over again. "Glad you liked it," I'd reply, having no idea which one they were talking about. I admit it: He was a classically overphotographed first-born child, and Christmas-card season meant more drawer space once the holiday greetings were out the door.

Then came our second and, along with him, a whole new seasonal requirement: the team photo. And as anyone with more than one child will tell you, it is almost impossible to get two kids together, in the same depth of field, with four clean nostrils and two happy faces. Oh, sure, there was the one-year grace period, when the younger one was just a baby and therefore still poseable and incapable of escape, even if I couldn't control what came out of his various orifices. That year I wiped his nose, propped him up, and tipped him toward his brother, then got my husband to snap the shot before the other had a chance to say, "Eeew, he smells! Get him away from me!"

The job is ever more daunting, and yet I keep trying. I lug around the big camera, a relic of our honeymoon days, to playgrounds and waterfronts. I keep the point-and-shoot pocket camera in my bag, ever at the ready for a photo-op. I'm not quite ready to give in to the man with the birdie and the crushed-velvet-covered piano bench.

But what was my mother to do? I only have to watch out for one Calvin and one Hobbes; she, by the end, had a Dennis the Menace, a Beaver Cleaver, plus Patty Duke times four (and none of them refined, like her cousin Cathy). With six kids, it was definitely a one-shot deal. My memory is that we always made the photographer open up on Sundays, after church, before we had a chance to mess up our good clothes.

The poses were always the same. Fred and Steve, the oldest, were the big-boy bookends on each end of the bench, framing Heidi, Holly, me, and eventually Katrina, the baby. The boys always wore blazers, button-down shirts, striped ties, dark pants, white athletic socks, and penny loafers. We girls always had on our favorite party dresses, our prettiest ribbons, our shiniest Mary Janes. Like a "Dateline" time line, our Christmas pictures are a challenge to match with the year or to put in chronological order. (Did Heidi have those cat-eye glasses in 1962 or 1963? Which year did Fred go to Boys State and get that lapel pin?)

The size of the youngest child is usually the best clue. Certain pieces of family lore can be gleaned by flipping through the black-and-white memories, most notably the year that Holly decided she didn't want bangs anymore. She cut them herself, right at the hairline, without much thought to what she might look like when they started to grow back. That year's picture is a study in widow's peaks and cowlicks, courtesy of my older sister.

But the imperfections seem slight in black-and-white. It's the sameness from year to year that's remarkable. We were told which way to tip our heads, which way to point our knees, what to do with our hands, and we obeyed. Occasionally there were signs of impish glee from whoever was in the baby seat, but it was just a sense, not fully realized on film.

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My kids, on the other hand, tend to burst out of whatever picture we end up using. The shots can be carbon-dated by their colorful pjs or vacation spot name-dropping T-shirts. The days of getting them dressed in their Sunday best for the purpose of taking the Christmas-card picture have long vanished.

I grab the shot when I can, praying that the sun won't make them too squinty, the fill-in flash will take the shadows off their cheeks, their zig-zaggy motions will be caught in a not-too-slow shutter speed, and the whole thing will be in focus. It's a lot to ask, but I still have hope.

Lately, my dear husband and father to these whirling dervishes has added a new twist to the Christmas-card-photo game. "You know all those people we send cards to but never see, the ones out West?" he asked. "We really should try to get a picture of all four of us, so they can remember what you and I look like, too."

Four happy faces? Eight clean nostrils? I think I'd better check the Yellow Pages for a good studio photographer.

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