While organizing my desk at work and discovered, inexplicably interleaved with official papers, a glossy snapshot from 1991.
Picture this: my best friend from high school, Bonnie, throws me a wedding shower at her house on Long Island.
This is a shower for a second marriage, so there are no games of “bridal bingo” (for second marriages, you play “bridal Russian roulette”) and there are no accessories made out of toilet paper.
There are no rules about whether breaking a ribbon when unwrapping a gift means you’ll have babies, with a result that ribbons are cut as decisively as Gordian Knots, even as the bonds between the celebrants are strengthened.
There’s a lot of wine for those who want it, such an abundance of delicious food that even if you don’t actually want it you cannot help yourself from helping yourself. There is also a lot of laughter. This laughter differed from the laughter I heard at showers for younger brides (including the one for my first wedding) insofar as this laughter was genuine.
This was deep, loud, real laughter of adult women, and not the half-embarrassed silver-bell tinkling giggling you’d have heard when a twenty-year-old was given a peignoir from Frederick’s of Hollywood by her grandmother.
At Bonnie’s house in 1991, we roared until we wiped mascara off our eyes and had to whack each other on the back because we were afraid somebody would choke on a pangnoli cookie from being unable to stop laughing.
As the bride-to-be, I sit at the center of the group. True, in itself this is not unusual. What is unusual is the chair in which I sit. It’s an astonishing creation constructed for the occasion by Bonnie and her brother Frankie.
It’s almost entirely veiled in gauze which hangs from the ceiling, as if in an exotic setting. An enormous fan-back wicker chair frames my very big 90s hair but the truly interesting part of the picture is that-- glued to the chair back--are eviscerated Barbie dolls. These dolls are split in two, so that the heads and upper torsos are neatly juxtaposed with the V-legged lower torsos.
I look like a bridal version of Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness."
This photograph is not a glamour shot, yet the picture captures an instant of hilarity that reconnected me to a moment 25 years ago. It also made me profoundly happy as I sat in my basement office, holding the shiny square of paper.
This is what women look like when we're really laughing, I thought. This was me, and us, all those years ago. This is me, and us, still. What a luxury.
I took a photograph of the photograph (I’m that clever) and put it up on my Facebook page. Friends posted their own family photographs, most talking about the sheer physical pleasure of holding a photograph and their worries that the next generation won’t have the same tactile satisfactions.
As Melissa B. Mork posted, “My son, who's 12, has no baby pictures or snapshots of his childhood. Instead, we have a junk drawer full of SD cards. For his HS graduation party rather than a clever montage of photos projected on a screen, I will just give him a necklace with SD cards hanging from it like charms. Maybe the old iPhone 4 can be the pendant.”
Not that she’s bitter.
The difference between photographs and real life was summed up best not by an art critic, but by a British politician: “Most things in life are moments of pleasure and a lifetime of embarrassment; photography is a moment of embarrassment and a lifetime of pleasure.” Tony Benn, Member of Parliament and brilliant rhetorician, got it right.
The best photographs are the one that initially make us gasp, widen our eyes, shut our eyes, or laugh. It’s not the posed, poised portrait photographs we most passionately cherish but those images which, like love, joy, generosity, or grace, catch us entirely unawares.