Our family portraits were divided
as neatly as a part
made with a fine-toothed comb,
into before me, the youngest,
and after me.
The only official family portrait, made before my birth,
was of my two sisters,
my father in suit and tie,
and my mother in her wonderful hat that lived for the rest of its life
in their bedroom closet on a tall shelf over their clothing rod.
That old portrait seemed intent
on making everyone what they rarely were afterwards:
my sisters in ruffles,
my father before he eased his collar and his tie
and took his Sunday jacket off,
my mother without apron, looking her chic younger self.
I wasn’t in evidence yet, and after I came,
there seemed to be no need for a family portrait
except those taken at weddings
in pictures that disappeared years later, shortly after the husbands did,
so that only snapshots remain like the separate islands of my family––
always one headland sheered off from the rest and floated away.
My father, my mother, my middle sister and me
in the yard of the last South Dakota house
that year I came back from Africa with a black Afro.
My father acting silly, twisted away from my mother’s linked arm
like a teenage boy who doesn’t want to touch a girl,
my sister under the smooth bubble hair
I too had sported a year before.
My oldest sister by then
had disappeared into some other family
that seemed to have staged a coup on ours––
a family she would sever ties with years later
when its son and brother severed ties with her.
So that when she finally came back to us,
my father was long gone to that place, perhaps,
that his prairie eyes seemed always to be looking for.
And when the next generation of weddings
brought new family portraits,
my father was the one missing.
And then my mother.
Now in our last and one of our few pictures taken together,
my oldest sister sits on the divan with me
with vacant softened eyes––
the oldest living member of our family––
here still, but not here.
They give her a doll to salve her sadness
and she rocks and rocks,
holding it and crooning my name, they say,
as though she pictures it to be
that sister she let fall from her grasp so many years before.
This picture, taken at my wedding, is the only picture I can find of my two sisters, my mother and me all together. It is also one of the few wedding pictures of the first three weddings in my family that was not ripped up after a divorce. Happily, the pictures of my sister Patti’s second marriage are still intact, as is the groom. I couldn’t find any of the other pictures mentioned in this essay, but my bed and bedroom floor, totally covered with stacks of photos from nine different “stages” of my life, give testimony to the fact that I tried. And yes, those are pink suede cowboy boots that form the lowest component of my wedding attire.