David and I shared a room for almost ten years, which ensured a mild ongoing antagonism based on our three-year age difference, our contrasting habits and personalities, on months-long arguments over who actually owned the magnetic puck hockey game, and whether the Dave Clark Five would be bigger than the Beatles (I argued for the DC Five). Once, while staying at my grandmother’s house and having just watched a prison movie, my cousin and I knotted sheets into a rope, tied them to a bed leg, and lowered David out the second-floor window. He descended erratically and dangerously into the frame of the living-room picture window, in view of my grandmother, who was serving tea to a group of Presbyterians. The sheet rope wasn’t long enough (just like in the movies), and he crashed into her prized flower bed. David recovered from this mishap as he did many others, and he continued to play the piano in the study with infuriating talent, sailing through his Toronto Conservatory lessons like Mozart as I struggled with each note.
I can see all this in the photograph. Most family photographs from any given era have certain similarities, posed and framed in the same way, the subjects wearing similar clothes, sporting the same haircuts, filmed with the same technology, and sending the same message: we are happy. With our own family photos, we see the context, we see what lurks outside the frame, the talents, limitations, antagonisms, and kinship that bind us and drive us apart. We know the grown-up version of the grinning child, that he was venal or gentle, that he loved his family or worked in the insurance game, that his liver gave out or his heart blew up. We go through family photo albums with a running narrative, and with what Roland Barthes described as “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.”
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