Christmas

[Episodes] Snapshots: Reflections on a family tradition

Adelle Chua
[Episodes] Snapshots: Reflections on a family tradition
'Each picture in the series carries a rich story of the circumstances we all faced when it was taken that particular year'

On one side of the main wall of our home are two columns – a series of 17 blown up, 8×12-inch photos of my four children over the years. I have made several attempts to put the pictures in fancy frames, but I have always reverted to the same unassuming 1/8-size illustration boards. When visitors come in and behold the series of portraits, they marvel at how much the kids have grown, how time has flown. For me, however, each picture carries a rich story of the circumstances we all faced when it was taken that particular year.

Take Year 1’s, for instance – taken December 25, 2005. The children were then 11, 9, 5, and 3 years old. It was Christmas Day and the five of us, exhausted from the flurry and the demands of the season, were at the home we shared with their father and grandparents. As a wife and mother at that time, I wondered how I could have my hands full yet feel so empty. And how I could be so young – I was then only 29 – yet feel old, spent, and bedraggled. Like life had passed me by. 

At dusk, I sent an SMS to my friend Jennie and asked whether she was home, and fortunately she was. In fact, she said, her mother was wondering why my children had not dropped by para mamasko. Jennie was godmother only to my eldest daughter Bea, but of course with us, it was always a package deal. I dressed the kids and told the people at home that we were just going to the kids’ ninang’s house. Stepping out of the gate, I felt as though I had taken my first breath in hours: it was fresh, glorious, liberating. Ah, Christmas, finally!

We hopped on a tricycle and were soon at Jennie’s. The kids were delighted at the toys and the crisp twenties in red envelopes. After the nice dinner and conversation with my friend and her mother, the kids and I realized we still did not want to go home. What to do, where to go? We crossed the street, me taking pity on little Elmo and finally carrying him, and hailed a near-empty jeepney to go to the newly-opened mall nearby. 

We had not been walking aimlessly for long when I saw the photo studio on the second floor of the mall. Those days, that was where people went if they needed to get an ID or passport photo taken. The studio also had blazers and neckties of different colors, I suppose for those who need to have a corporate look, and different backgrounds for photo shoots – clouds, rainbows, flowers – as well as a red divan to squeeze into. We had two poses: one of the five of us, and one with just the four children. 

We had to walk around the mall for at least an hour – okay, we sat at the food court because we got tired – waiting for the photos to be printed. Those were pre-Facebook days, and having a wallet-size photo of your loved ones was nearly the same as having them as your cover or profile photo on social media today. I had several copies printed for the wallets of our friends and relatives. And then, I had one of the four of them “blown up,” imagining I could put in it a frame somewhere. When I saw the happy shots, coming home did not seem as bleak as I had dreaded. 

After that, a flurry. Years 2 to 17 came by so fast, indeed. The five of us moved out of that house and carved out our own life – a humble one when we started, but light and promising nonetheless. The kids went through puberty and growing pains, found friendships and relationships, some of which lasted and some of which fizzled out, explored their talents and inclinations, and tried to find their place in the world. I could say the same for myself. We lived in two other homes before settling into where we are right now, in an entirely different city. 

Last week, for Year 18, we had our photo shoot at a hotel suite we had booked for this year’s family vacation. I thought it best to stay somewhere within NCR since we all had work or school obligations, and having a common three days when we were all free to go out of town seemed out of the question. The photographer only had to brave the pre-holiday traffic jam to be with us. The only rules during the vacation: No pressure to do this or that, and you can do what you have to do (or be where you have to be) – just go home to the hotel at the end of the day, to be with the people who matter. Because home is not an address but a place where you could be yourself, and breathe. 

I no longer have kids – all of them are adults. The youngest, whom I carried that Christmas evening, is now 20, has a deep voice, and is at least seven inches taller than I am. Strangely, even though I am seeing more white hair on my head and am observing the first few signs of my body’s wear and tear, I feel younger and braver and more invincible than I did when I was in my 20s. I no longer worry about watching them like a hawk and ensuring they make the right decisions every time. There are a few occasional creases, of course, mostly bickering over chores or over who borrowed what item and did not return it. Still, over the years, I have learned to trust that these four individuals could fend for themselves, look out for each other, and even as they eventually leave the nest, make their mark in the world with excellence, humility, and kindness. 

This is what our latest portrait – which I will soon print to the desired size and place against the backdrop of the humble illustration board – radiates. I can’t wait for the stories that the succeeding years will tell. – Rappler.com

Adelle Chua teaches journalism at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. She was opinion editor, editorial writer, and opinion columnist for Manila Standard for 15 years. 

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