I’m positive lots of families would be jealous. After all, having a professional photographer for a father means every joyful moment of my childhood was captured in idyllic black and white. A gallery of his beautiful work occupies the walls of my living room. The irony is, none of the photos are of my father. Instead, the room is filled with pictures of me, my mom, and my sister. It’s the room visitors are enamored with. It’s the room guests marvel over when visiting. Except my favorite photo isn’t on display there. It’s on my sister’s bedroom wall. And my father, the photographer, didn't even take it.
It was the only time my mom ever picked up my dad's Nikon D200 camera. My father and I were doing our usual yard work on Sunday when my mom decided to take a picture of the two of us, raking leaves on the front lawn. My dad and I dissolved into laughter as my mom reached for the camera and proceeded to point the lens directly into her eye. Even when she did figure out which way to point the lens, the various buttons on the camera baffled her. The entire scene was comical, something to be laughed off and forgotten immediately. I never would have imagined that the photo she took would become my favorite photo on earth—that it would be the last photo taken of my father and me.
My father passed away suddenly in early January 2015, leaving a trail of incomplete memories through his black and white photographs. Without him in the world, his absence from each image was all the more pronounced. His version of a family photo wasn’t of the whole family; it was him capturing the image of me, my mom, and sister as we posed. It was putting the camera up to his icy blue eyes and clicking the button. As he built a rhythm and found the lighting he wanted, his lens would dance through the air, seeming to leap as he went from kneeling to standing, only to dive when he lay on his side. The dance seemed to go on for hours. He took hundreds of pictures, never once losing his contagious smile. Nothing seemed to make him happier than finding that perfect shot. It was his way of existing within the family photo.
I’m transported through time as I walk through the gallery. A wistful smile spreads on my face as I look at each image in turn: images of me chasing my sister on the beach with a bucket of water, of my sister gleefully waving a wand in her princess dress, and of my mom looking out at the serene ocean from a jetty in Martha’s Vineyard. I long to regain the same joy that permeates the images of my childhood. I try to recapture his face in my mind and to remember what it feels like to be the focus of his camera’s lens, but I have forgotten how it feels to have someone you can depend on. I want desperately to remember how it felt to have my father but, above all, I want to remember what it felt like to roll on the ground with him among the fall-colored leaves.
The picture on my sister’s wall reminds me what it felt like to have my father. So I carry it with me, as a photo of a photo on my phone: my favorite memory, far from perfect but perfectly and irrevocably mine. And I strive to remember that he is always there, just outside the frame.