I am one irresponsible, red Tesla purchase away from a full-blown mid-life crisis. Wikipedia defines mid-life crisis as a “psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a person’s growing age, inevitable mortality, and possibly shortcomings of accomplishments in life.” As a part of this staring at the abyss of my mortality, I wanted to have my photograph taken. It’s not like I’ve never had my picture taken. There are the Facebook snapshots that project a certain image created for public consumption: “Look at me, I go to the ballet.” “Look at me, I am the perfect mother.” “Look at me, I have a sense of humor.” One dimensional caricatures for our personal marketing of self to the world. And there are the professional photographs: “I am trustworthy.” “I am professional.” “I am competent.” Bland, vanilla, and easily transferable, you could change jobs from college professor to realtor and not have to have them retaken. I have a firestorm of emotion brewing inside of me and none of this captured it.
My grandmother was a beauty queen in the early 1930s. She was engaged twice before she finally met and married my grandfather, a Scottish working-class immigrant with Paul Newman eyes and a charismatic personality that only got better with a few shots of Irish whisky. My mother was the embodiment of both of them in the 1950s. The captain of her cheerleading squad, the prom queen, and the homecoming queen, everyone was drawn to her.
This spring (spring in Central Texas starts in February), I had two sets of mid-life crisis photographs made. Despite decades of therapy, I am one of those adult children who both hangs on, and rejects, her mother’s validation. It’s like purposefully putting your hand on a hot stove even though you have already decided you weren’t going to cook anything on it anyway. I long for validation of my own, unique personhood, which is more often than not, too messy and coloring outside the lines for my mother to give. So of course, she was among the first people I sent the photographs to.
Our texting conversation after the first set went something like this:
Photos texted with caption: “Photo shoot”
“Who is this?” (could be taken as a compliment, we don’t know yet)
“Me!” (wait for it…)
“Why?” (okay, clearly not a compliment)
“Why not?” (oppositional child)
“Surely you are not using this for your book” (shame on you)
The second set of photographs, taken a couple of months later, were met with complete silence.
In her defense, it is enormously difficult to let your children be their own individuals and express great joy in that 100% of the time, but my mother’s complete silence upon receiving the photographs was heartbreaking. My sending them to her was clearly some kind of masochistic effort to work something out in my head, something more than just an unrealized, childhood need for validation.
I am the family historian, meaning I am the holder of all photographs, stories and videos for both sides of my family. Recently, I began an organizing frenzy of family pictures – the kind where you go to the Container Store and use the word “need” a lot in your head as you pass up and down the rows of useful objects to contain one’s white privileged life. In my frantic sorting of family memories, I ran across a photograph of my grandmother when she was 49 years old, the same age I was when I took the photograph that resulted in silence. She looked like a grandmother for as long as she was my grandmother. And even in this photograph, taken seven years before I was born, she already had the gray, football-helmet-style hairdo sprayed with layers of Aqua Net that held it in place for a week. She was overweight and held herself tightly towards herself, almost in an effort to make herself smaller. When I looked back even further in time, her evolution into an old lady seemed to begin shortly after her second child was born.
When I finally did talk to my mother about her feelings regarding the second set of photographs, she said she didn’t like them because I looked like I was sad. My goal was to capture the longing, desire, and sexuality I still feel my late 40s and as I inch into the other half of my life, I often wonder how much permission I have to exude that into the world without judgment. But as I look again, perhaps there is a sadness of some kind, a subtle sadness that only a mother can see. Without thinking, I replied, “Maybe I am sad,” as if to say, “What’s it to you?” and daring her to find a problem with putting that out into the world.
I looked at my grandmother’s photograph of her at my same age. A devout Catholic, she was rumored to be disinterested in sex and possibly disgusted by it. But her two engagements before my grandfather suggest to me that she enjoyed the flirtations of her sexuality in her youth. But when she married and had children, she crossed over. She became the Madonna, the matriarch, and her own sexuality and sadness had to be kept to herself and alive only in the memories of her youth. For my mother, being sweet, happy, and always smiling for the camera was how she manipulated a culture that was not yet open to her1 and it worked brilliantly in that regard. Part of my midlife crisis is a refusal to cross over. An active rebellion against the idea that I must become a one dimensional caricature of womanhood as my gender and age pass each other in the night. I want to make vulnerable to the world the sum of all of my parts and see just how many can survive.
1 I would add that men have different cultural constraints that can be equally as suffocating and restrictive.