Feb 16, 2012 0 Share

Love in a Pile of Leaves


Author's parents sitting in pile of leaves with her brother as a little boy.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

This Valentine's Day, I'm determined to look for love in the ordinary spaces of my days. Too often, I get swept up by the idea of love, the thought of devotion—and, in doing so, I overlook the everyday manifestations of the extraordinary. 

In an effort not to miss real love when I see it, I found myself holding a particular photograph in my hands and studying it intently. In the process of scanning photos for a documentary film project, I came across this 20-year-old image of my family. 

The photograph's composition is a clue to the photographer: me, at elementary-school age. Looking at it now, I can see that it's off'; the house is looming large in the background, and the family is crammed into the foreground. As an adult, I can admit it's not an ideal photograph by any means. But I love it all the more for its imperfections. I love that my parents jumped into a pile of leaves with Willie and let me take their picture. You can see the rake, abandoned, near the edge of the lawn, and I love what that symbolizes: That we set aside efficiency and made room for play. I love that my parents entrusted me with their camera and gave me a chance to capture such happiness

Of course, I run the risk of idealizing even here; though this moment is a beautiful one, I know that there were difficult moments in Willie's and my shared childhood. I know that there were times when Willie and I fought with one another, times when I thought my parents were unfair, times when Willie ran away and scared us half to death. (In fact, my first memory of my little brother is of him biting my hand during a tussle over which TV channel to watch, of me screaming in outrage.) 

And, I suspect, this is true for many families. You have your gorgeous times, the times when home is a place of peace and contentment. And then you have the times when you want to throw in the towel and give up on the exasperating people that you call family. You get your birthdays, your anniversaries and Valentine's days, when you show appreciation and commitment to one another. And then you get your ordinary days, when you're lucky if you don't snap and scold or ignore one another completely. 

Somehow, this photograph gives me greater insight into the paradoxical nature of family, the way we're always trying to change and stay the same, balancing the simultaneous desires to create a safe haven and fly the coop. In looking at the image, you can tell that Willie's about to wiggle out of the embrace; you can see that he's not looking at the camera or at my parents. You can see that this little boy is in a different world. But you can also see my father holding his hand, my mother cuddling him close. 

My dad no longer wears aviator sunglasses, my mom no longer has a perm, and my brother is no longer a chubby-cheeked child. He has grown up, and our family dynamics have changed. Even so, there are clues to the future in the past. Though he's no longer the same impish boy, the grown-up Willie still moves out of pictures at every opportunity. Though they're no longer sporting 1980's styles, the older parents are still holding Willie, still creating a space of support for him. And ultimately, I treasure this photograph not because of all that has changed, but because of what remains

The trees around my family may wither; time may change our bodies, our relationships, and our lives. We'll get lost and found, over and over again. Yet I also see a reason for hope, because I see a family that has left normal and gone in for something better: Love that endures through changing seasons, love amidst the dying of the leaves, still beaming bright.