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Turning Tides: Picture Imperfect

As told to Leah Gebber

In every picture, she had draped one arm over someone’s shoulder. The sleeve had slipped, exposing her elbow — and her tattoo

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Zeidy never said much, apart from when he would surprise you and eject a stream of words and explanations. 

It happened every few months, maybe just twice a year. It happened to me when I was 14, sitting at his dining room table and peering at some camp photos. I hated how I looked in one photo — my hair was a mess, my skin had broken out, my eyes slits from lack of sleep. The picture, I soon decided, belonged in the garbage. 

As I tossed it, Zeidy walked into the kitchen. He looked at me in horror, and wagged his head. He reached into the garbage can and snatched out the picture, laying it on the counter and wiping it clean with a tissue. “You don’t throw away a picture, understand?” he said. Shocked, I just nodded. 

And then it came, the stream. Things about not disrespecting the human form, about tzelem Elokim, about how if you’re already insisting on taking photos, then don’t ever, ever throw them into the garbage can. I didn’t understand, really, what he was saying, but I was left with the impression that a picture is akin to my Chumash notebook, never thrown away, left on the shelf until it falls apart, and only then placed carefully in sheimos. 

We all knew Zeidy was special, and then there were the numbers on his arm. We knew they meant he had been to another world and returned, so everything he said took on celestial significance. For years, I carefully stored every picture I developed. Not all of them ended up in the family album, not all were on display. But even the ones where you saw my double chin, or those terrible pictures with newborn babies where you’re sans makeup and wearing a lopsided snood; they’re all in a box in the basement. 

But one morning I stood over the garbage can in the kitchen, tearing up picture after picture, letting the pieces fall into the garbage can. I was too distraught to be shocked at my behavior.

It was a gift from my sister, slipped through the mail slot in a large cream envelope; the professional pictures from her son’s bar mitzvah. She’d developed them all, and those of our family she gave to us. 

When I lifted the envelope from the doormat, I knew just what they were: it was typical my sister, she’s always been thoughtful that way. I even felt a tiny shiver of excitement — the bar mitzvah had been a beautiful evening and I’d recently lost a lot of weight and bought myself a new dress for the occasion. 

But when I opened them, it was like being punched in the gut. 

Of course, I know what my kids look like. But really, I don’t. Because when I see them, I don’t see a face, a posture, an expression. I see the composite of a thousand images, starting from newborn and up to the present, all colored by my love for them. 

But pictures can be cruel. As I looked through, again and again, I saw my daughter Zisi — she goes by Zara now — and I saw her as a stranger. For the occasion, she had consented to wear a new top I bought her: one with wide, flounced sleeves that dropped just below the elbow. I had looked through a thousand online stores to find it, then, without time for a home delivery option, had braved the crowds of a distant store to pick it up. But when she tried it on, I knew it was worth it. She was actually wearing something that looked acceptable to our circle, our family. 

There was the small matter of the pixie cut, the strappy leather boot-thingies in the middle of summer, and the skirt length. There was the small matter of the piercings around the circumference of her right ear. But okay. The top was okay. 

Until I looked at the pictures. In every one, she had draped one arm over someone’s shoulder. The sleeve had slipped, exposing her elbow — and her tattoo. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 550)

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