How awkward pet photos brought my family closer
I’ve been home three times since moving abroad five years ago. The first two times were for weddings, but in January Mom had a health scare, and a few days later I was on a plane bound for North Carolina from Germany. That feeling of ‘not being there in times of need’ is, undoubtedly, one of the downsides of expat life. Fortunately, the hospital tests came back negative, and by the time I arrived she’d made a full recovery. Over the next couple of days Mom and I took long walks. She cooked her guts out every day. One day over lunch we were discussing my New Year’s resolution to write three books this year. That was when Mom suggested I put the dogs on the cover of a book I’d recently finished, a travel guide devoted to partying in Düsseldorf. She suggested the dogs because I wrote it under the pen name “Party Animal Guidebooks.” All week I’d been searching for cover photos online, but nothing I found seemed right. So I decided to take Mom’s offer as a sign. “Jeeze, Olive,” Mom said to the chihuahua. “You look like a floozie.” The little white dog lifted her front paw and shivered. She wore a string of green beads, the sort thrown to topless coeds at Mardi Gras. Of course, the floozie comment was regarding the makeup Mom had put on her: rosy red cheeks and severe penciled-in eyebrows that looked to have been applied in an automobile, perhaps a pickup, rolling down an old dirt road. Josie, my mother’s Boston terrier, was dressed more conservatively, wearing a turquoise silk tie, knotted loosely around the neck. The photoshoot took place on the dining room table. We draped a white tablecloth over a box, set down a plate of German bratwursts with bread, a bottle of Beck’s, a short pewter stein, and a couple of demitasses which, beside the dogs, looked like normal-sized coffee cups. Through the viewfinder, you’d swear you were in a German restaurant. The sausages weren’t actual German sausages but Italian sausages that’d been sitting in the fridge for some time. “They’re kind of slimy,” Mom had said. “I was going to throw them out anyway.” We picked up the dogs and positioned them at their dinner party. We’d chosen to take the photos on the dining room table because the lighting was good. However, having never been to Where The Humans Chow Down, the dogs looked very apprehensive. They trembled, ears slicked back on their heads. My father used a squeaker toy (the high-pitched sound makes their ears perk), and eventually they accepted that we didn’t plan to eat them. Capturing the right photo required the dogs’ ears to be up. Otherwise they just looked sad. Accomplishing this took coordination and precise timing between photographer and squeaker operator. The dogs ears rose and fell in direct correlation with the sound of the squeaker, so the photographer had to take the shot exactly when the squeaker climaxed. Mom’s a decent photographer, but the shutter speed necessary to capture this moment was the same used to capture speeding bullets. I offered my advice, but I know nothing about photography, and what I suggested sounded pretty lame. “Try a different angle,” I told her. “Stand on a chair.” After 30 pictures I began to question her abilities. But something was missing from the photos, a certain…magic, for lack of a better word, that just wasn’t there. “Make it look like they’re having fun,” I told Mom. She handed me the camera. “Here,” she said. “Knock yourself out.” The Boston terrier was doing alright, but Olive was being a complete party pooper. Trying to photograph a shivering chihuahua is enough to make you pull your hair out: You’re simply left with a white, out-of-focus blur staring at you with dark pitiful eyes, set beneath the arches of wild, shocking brows. She looked like she belonged on the side of a milk carton. We wrapped up the shoot before dinner, and mom cut up pieces of sausage to give to the dogs as reparation. It goes without saying that as far as a usable cover photo was concerned, the shoot was a complete failure. However, the hours we spent trying to pull it off weren’t a total loss. Naturally I was frustrated, but when I got over that, I felt a great sense of gratitude for having spent the afternoon with my parents. I’ve never been the type for sappy endings, but maybe it took moving overseas for me to truly appreciate every moment I spend with them. So what if the photoshoot was a failure. What’s important is that we failed together, as a family. I suppose it’s one of those lessons that comes with maturity: The smaller things fall out of frame. The things that truly matter start to shift more into focus. They say you can’t go home again, but at times like this, I can’t picture anywhere I’d rather be.