My sister and I cannot smile.
Okay, that’s not entirely true–we have the muscle function that is necessary to smile, but if you ask us to sit for a picture and smile for the camera, it’s likely you won’t get a genuine smile out of either of us. Instead, you’ll get what we refer to as “The Panarese Smile.”
A smile that is not so much an expression of happiness or delight as it is a grimace of discomfort or pain, The Panarese Smile has been a constant presence in family pictures since around the time the two of us were teenagers. Any time we got together with our extended family–usually a holiday like Christmas or Easter–all of the cousins would be corralled into one area of the house and have to sit for pictures. And when those pictures came out, you’d see that nancy and I looked like having our pictures taken was the absolutely last thing we wanted to do. In fact, in some of the pictures taken when I was in high school or college, I not only look like I’m in pain but my expression is downright hostile, as if I were saying, “You dragged my ass all the way out here and now you want me to pose for a picture? How dare you!”
I have no explanation as to why I was such a bitchy teenager. My life wasn’t hard and I had no reason to truly rebel. But I was just moody and bitchy half the time, and it would be especially so among my family during picture time. More than likely, I was annoyed that taking pictures meant that I had to put my book down or that I had to stop watching whatever game or movie I’d parked myself in front of to endure what seemed like endless torture at the hands of my mother and aunts.
Until I had to endure the portrait sessions of weddings, I had no idea how painful a photography session could be, but at fifteen or sixteen I wasn’t there yet so there was nothing more annoying than being asked to sit on the front porch of my grandmother’s house with the sun shining directly in my eyes while people with cameras yelled “Over here! Tommy! Look over here! Now over here!”
Actually, that’s a lie. There was one thing worse than several of those sessions put together. The Sears Portrait Studio.
During my childhood, the Sears Portrait Studio was a mainstay of the venerable department store, a place where suburban families for years would go and be photographed by a professional and then select portrait packages. The company that owned the portrait studios (it was independent of Sears Roebuck and Co.) closed up shop in April 2013 citing competition from digital photography; specifically, they were losing money because people were taking money with their iPhones. Which, to be honest, is a smokescreen that companies use because it’s easier to blame emerging technology than it is to admit you were hemorrhaging cash due to mismanagement and not updating your business practices for the better part of a decade. And I know for a fact that they hadn’t done so because my wife and I were taking our son to our local Sears for a while and those sessions eventually became as torturous as the ones I had growing up.
Getting your picture taken at Sears was not easy. Most photographers that I have dealt with seem to go out of their way to make a family portrait an easy, pleasant experience. Sears was set up to test your willpower and endurance levels. Just like any other portrait studio or photographer, Sears worked by appointment, but if you did not have your appointment book for the minute the store opened, you wound up with a wait that Samuel Beckett could have written, sitting in the lobby of the portrait studio, which at the Gardiner Manor Mall Sears was next to the automotive department and that meant that whenever my sister and I were dragged to Sears we had to sit around and smell tires for an hour.
At least it seemed like an hour. The smell of galvanized rubber goes to your head very quickly and if you have to spend more than ten or fifteen minutes in its presence, you not only get a headache but your entire sense of reality gets warped, your eyes glaze over, your stomach gets nauseous, and you begin to hallucinate. I swear that during some of my waits, the giant portraits on the walls began to move.
It doesn’t help that said giant portraits all looked creepy, like they were people who got along way more than anyone should. After all, you would have to get along at an unnatural rate to want to blow a family portrait up to the size of a poster or have it woven into an afghan. In fact, seeing how many different things you could get your picture screened onto led me to believe that Sears was supplying some sort of weird suburban underbelly, a Stepford Wifes-type horror show where people were made to wait an enormous amount of time just to have their pictures taken and when they are at their most surly, the camera steals their souls.
But it has to be the most surly moment possible. When you are a baby or a little kid, it doesn’t happen because you have too much joy. Plus, the photographers will let you play with teddy bears and will dangle silly things in front of you. But as you get to be a teenager you become less enthralled by the experience of having a portrait taken, and that’s when Sears would start laying the groundwork for soul larceny. The wait gets longer. The poses get more awkward, especially if you have a sibling because they’ll get pseudo-incestuous. Then, one day, you find yourself in the waiting room for longer than usual and it seems like it’s hotter than usual and that sport-jacket that you’re wearing (which has been in your closet since you were twelve) seems extremely tight and the smell is causing your vision to blur and your head to spin. And you realize that something doesn’t feel right, but you can’t conjure up the energy to leave. Besides, the moment you finally realize that you can leave is when they call your name.
And then it happens.
My sister and I had it happen when I was seventeen and she was fourteen. My mom hadn’t brought us to Sears for a brother-sister portrait for at least a few years and we had been having individual pictures taken at school, but since I was a senior in high school headed off to college the following year, she obviously thought it would be a great idea to get a picture of the kids together.
We, obviously, did not. We went along because … well, because he had to. But not without employing a method of passive resistance common to many of my generation: whining. Unfortunately, said method of passive resistance wasn’t very effective, as it only boosted my mother’s resolve to get the picture taken. So we wandered around the automotive department and I tried to pass the time by working on some homework that I had brought with me, although I seemed to do nothing more except scribble in my creative writing journal about how fake this all felt, about how the picture that would result would not show how miserable the two of us were at that moment, the fumes of unsold tires slowly poisoning our minds.
The clock ticked by slowly, seemingly going backwards as we waited and waited and waited. And with each passing moment we grew more surly. I began to think of all of the things I could be doing at that moment that were more constructive: hanging out with my girlfriend, playing hockey with my friends, rollerblading in the park, reading comic books, standing in line at the DMV. Our names being called didn’t help the misery because we still had to take the picture and that in itself was more complicated than the average invasive surgical procedure. I had to have my left side of my face facing the camera because I have a scar on my right side. It took the photographer multiple shots to honor this request. Then, we were made to stand, behind, near, and next to one another with the photographer setting up poses that brothers and sisters should not use in pictures. I mean, I know my sister and I showed affection for another by smacking and insulting one another, but what we were asked to do was more suitable to Flowers in the Attic.
Then we were asked to smile. After being dragged to Sears against our will, after being forced into a nausea-induced haze by the fumes of the automotive department, and after being contorted into unnatural poses and positions, the photographer had the unmitigated gall to ask us to smile.
What resulted was a picture of the two of us that hung on the wall of my parents’ living room for years. I’m standing behind my sister against a black background with the right half of my face hidden in shadow as if I’m Harvey Dent, and I have the most pained expression possible on my face, which is augmented by my apparent lack of eyes. My sister flashes her braces with a look that tells us that she cannot wait to get out of there. It should be a portrait of two kids who were now grown up so that we could look at it on the wall next to the one of me in my Cosby sweater and her in her Christmas dress and say, “Wow, where did the time go?” Instead it became an object of ire. We both hated that picture because we both looked so horrible; moreover, we hated it because we knew that we wouldn’t really get much of a chance to take another one since we didn’t spend a lot of time together while I was a way at college. What Sears captured–along with our souls–was the misery of sibling adolescence.
As I mentioned, my son had a few portraits taken at Sears when he was a baby and we had a few family sessions done until he was five years old, but in the last two years the photographers had lost the ability to get him to sit still (probably because they were making the same noisy they’d been making when he was six months old) and had no idea how to read their clients. We came in wearing nice clothes like jackets and dresses, why would you pose us the same way you posed the couple in matching hunting camouflage whose portrait you decided to hang in the lobby? It’s no wonder they went out of business.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, we had our family portrait this year taken by an excellent local photographer. My son’s soul is safe.