The music was boisterous and loud, and people were shouting over it to be heard across their tables. An intimate conversation, if anyone had attempted it, would have required very close proximity of lips to earónot a bad situation, if youíre inclined to such activities. A few people were dancing in the empty corners of the big room, and the hired DJ gauged the effectiveness of his choices by their enthusiasm. Waiters scurried around looking serious and efficient, serving the last few plates of baked chicken and green vegetables. On a side table, the birthday cake waited. It said, "Happy 90th, Marion."
I sat at a table with seven other people who were, like nearly everyone else in the banquet room, chatting pleasantly with each other. I checked my video camera to make sure it was working, and tried a few practice shots. My specialty is candid pictures of people doing their thing, preferably without knowing I am there. I dislike posed shots, although sometimes I can get interesting portraits in between poses. "Say cheese!" is not in my less-than-professional repertoire.
I agreed to photograph the party as much to give myself something to do as to be of service to the family. Otherwise, Iíd be standing around with a glass in my hand, watching other people, speaking when spoken to, feeling like an alien trying to either fit in or disappear.
Not that I was uncomfortable there. Iíve done this thing all my life, being on the fringes of whatever is happening in a group of people. This affair was in honor of my wifeís mother, who had flown up from Florida for the occasion. Two dozen other members of the family were here, as well, some having flown in from either coast. A ninetieth birthday is, indeed, an occasion to celebrate. Marion was a favorite "Nana" to most of those present.
Judith had prepared a slide show for the party, and a series of old photographs appeared on a large screen at the end of the room as people ate and talked. The photographs were of family members and friends, some dating back to a century ago. People in the room recognized themselves and each other as babies, children, young adults with families of their own, as grandparents looking over the shoulders of their descendants. A hundred and fifty glimpses of the past. The audience exclaimed and even applauded for some. Relatively recent additions to the family were especially impressed. "That was you? I canít believe it!"
As people finished their meal, they began to circulate, greeting each other and sharing stories of the past and present. Several people presented toasts to the guest of honor. A granddaughter moved to a microphone and sang to her Nana. When the cake was brought out, with one lighted candle on it, everybody clapped. Marion said a few words that my camera couldnít pick up, and the DJ started playing a recording of "Itís a Wonderful World." After she extinguished the candle by bashing it with a handy table knife (she claimed that someone had used one of those trick re-igniting candles), she waved a grandson over and began to dance. I kept my camera rolling, and moved about the room.
As I said, I was not uncomfortable. Because I had a job to do, I limited myself to one glass of wine. I thought of the countless times Iíve drunk myself stupid simply because I felt separate and uncertain, and carrying a drink around gave me reassurance. Tonight I watched people, as I usually do, but not with envy. I looked for interesting expressions and situations, and hid behind my camera instead of a drink. Once, Judith made me put my camera down and dance with her.
It was later that I got those old feelings back. I had taken some video pictures and a lot of still shots with a digital camera. A couple of other people had also taken digital photographs, and I took on the task of preparing the images in the computer for a souvenir slide show. Recording a couple of old songs by Nat King Cole, one of Marionís favorite singers, I added the sound track to the slide show and transferred it to videotape so that we could send copies to some of the people who had been there or hadnít been able to make it.
Part of the process of compiling pictures, I had discovered years ago while working with film and slide presentations, is looking at pictures over and over, getting a sense of how they fit together, looking for what the developing program says on a visceral level. Editing films, something I once dreamed of doing professionally, affected me most strongly. With my camera I shot my films more or less as opportunities appeared, and then at the editing bench tried to make sense of what I had. Whatever my audience thought or felt about the resulting program, I was always affected by the process. I suppose it was just that gradual familiarization process, like getting to know a new friend or lover over a period of time, discovering them at deeper and deeper levels.
What I discovered this time, or rather, what I rediscovered, was my own profound loneliness. Judithís family is like most families, I suppose. They interact over the years and alternately become closer and more distant. Rivalries and cliques come and go. Feelings get hurt and issues develop and get resolved. There in that hotel banquet room, the mood was gay and open. Everybody seemed to like each other. They sang and danced together, and told each other old stories and reminded each other how important family is to them. Looking at those photographs over and over in different arrangements, and seeing them over Nat King Cole singing "Unforgettable," I felt an old, old sadness.
I donít know where it came from originally. I used to attribute it to some unknown event back in my childhood, perhaps as a four-year-old feeling abandoned because his mother left him for a day to visit someone, or some other very ordinary thing. Over the years a memory becomes imprinted in oneís psyche, a room in oneís heart thatís kept locked and forgotten for years, only to be discovered now and then when something happens to remind one; a key is inserted into a lock, and a flood of feelings arise out of the past. A habit, as much as choosing which sock to put on first in the morning, or what dish one selects at a familiar restaurant before thinking about it.
Those feeling habits are probably more common in my experience than I even know. Triggered by ordinary events, they are usually appropriateófeeling joy at seeing early morning sunlight streaming through a window, apprehension or even fear when walking on a deserted city street at night, melting at the touch of a loverís hand on my face. Feeling sad and lonely while surrounded by familiar faces is not what Iíd call appropriate, even if I can rationalize it. Many of the people there would be surprised to hear of my feelings. Iíve been a part of that family for a dozen years, welcomed by most and even cherished by a few. I suspect (although itís too late to find out for sure) that Iíd feel much of the same emotions if the party had been of my own birth family. Itís been many decades since my own family gathered in reunion. My sisters and I share a warm affection, even though we live separate and distant lives. My children and their families seem to feel the bond of relationship with me and with each other, but we live in different parts of the country.
No, this feeling is not about my current relationships, or whether I "really" fit in with those around me. Thinking of it as a habit seems healthier than labeling it a neurosis and spending years in psychotherapy trying to overcome it. I can work around it, much as I did in this case, hiding behind a camera while absorbing vicariously the enjoyment and connectedness of others. Allowing it to flood over me in private, even wallowing in it, as I did for a short time, keeps it from affecting others. The last thing I want is pity.
And writing about it gives it some value as creative energy. Not feeling anything would be the greater loss.
Donald Skiff, April 25, 2002