When I made my three-day trip to Los Angeles to get evaluated for a kidney transplant, I got back in touch with my old friend Hanna, whom I hadn't seen or communicated with in some 20 years. We had a nice afternoon's visit, and we filled each other in on the intervening decades.
As I told Hannah about how Sally and I moved to Boston, got married, met up with our friends David and Claudia and Robert and Elizabeth, and how all of us, three couples, had revived a church together and had our children together, I broke into tears. It's the best story ever, I realized.
What's more, all six of us knew it: We knew what a privilege, what a total stroke of luck, it was in modern American to live in a real neighborhood, to count our best friends among our neighbors, to raise children together, and to go to the same church within walking distance of where we lived. This we did for one golden decade, a time that we still try to capture in The Picture.
THE PICTURE STARTED in Robert and Elizabeth's house. It must have been around Thanksgiving of 1992, because, looking back on it, Elizabeth realized that she had just gotten pregnant with Phillipa at that time, and Phillipa was the first child among us, born in July of 1993.
Anyway, we had just had dinner, the six of us, and I had my camera and a tripod along with me, so I may have planned the whole thing. I posed the six of us around and on a couch, three seated, three standing behind, set up the camera on a self-timer, and took the original picture, which turned out great. All three of us couples have a copy, and we all display it.
Since then, whenever we have managed to pull the whole group of us together, we have taken another picture. Children have swelled our ranks to 12. And unfortunately, throughout the years, none of the group pictures have turned out very good. All of them were taken indoors, and it's difficult to arrange so many people successfully indoors -- technically difficult, in terms of light, focus, and framing, and artistically difficult, especially with rambunctious kids mugging and jumping around.
UNTIL THIS YEAR. David and Claudia, who now live in Kansas City, had rented their usual summer vacation cottage, on the Annisquam River, near Gloucester, Massachusetts. The cottage was once the carriage house for a grand stone residence. It's made of stone, two generous stories high, and comes with spacious grounds. There's a grove alongside on a little rise, with a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle, and that's where I lined everybody up for David's camera, and this year, it worked.
Everyone generally of a height lined up horizontally, in a single line -- eight people in all, adults and children. The two shortest, our sons Bud and Joe, jogged forward a bit, and Joe threw out his arms wide, as though to invite the camera in to see us all. Almost directly behind Joe and Bud, behind the eight-person line, stood the tallest of us, David and Claudia, who are very tall people indeed.
The skinny old dude with the big gray moustache and the little pot belly, wearing a red Hawaiian shirt over on the left end, that's me. Next to me to my left stands our goddaughter Phillipa, Robert and Elizabeth's first, and the first child of the six of us. She was called "Pippa" jauntily when she was little, but she won't allow that anymore. On Phillipa's left, David and Claudia's daughter Christina. Christina, tall and gorgeous like her mother, has been sneaking off with our older son Bud, who's become quite a ladies' man in his fourteenth year.
Then comes Elizabeth, who got us all started on this childbearing journey. Throughout the years, Elizabeth and I have had some long, long talks, mainly because we're the ones who have stayed home while our dedicated professional spouses go away and work. Then Sally, for once with a relaxed smile on her face -- she hates having her picture taken, and it almost always shows.
Behind Sally, David, a stolid, tall, bearded doctor, with the hint of a grin, and with his wife Claudia next to him, truly beautiful, blonde, with a big gleaming smile. In front of Claudia stands her and David's younger daughter, Cecile Louise, who is an acrobat, and can perform frightening feats of balance.
Then Owen, Robert and Elizabeth's son, fearfully bright and a talented lefty golfer, and finally, balancing me on the other end, Robert, with his glasses and the braininess that has carried on so conspicuously in his children.
Twelve people now, and, if I have done nothing else with my life, I've been a part of this, and it is very good indeed. We all still get along, we have wonderful talks, and our children all get along with one another, too. It may be a small miracle, but it's a miracle nonetheless.