Spring Break 1994, Elsa and I went camping. This was our last spring break as students, since we were both completing our master’s degrees in education that year. I had already started working as a long-term substitute teacher in the school district where Elsa and I had met and become friends in the late ’80s. I had married the previous fall, so things were already becoming so very different, so very “adult.” We weren’t the girls we had been when we first became friends in Madame McCoy’s French class where I learned that elle s’appelle Elsa and that she had the most joyous laugh I’d ever heard.
We were friends through all of our crushes on boys, through difficulties and illnesses in our families, through the transition from high school to college to adulthood. She taught me about quetzals, Chapinlandia and malas. In high school we rode around Duncanville listening to Morrissey. On one drive, we ran over a bottle. She was run over once too by a car in the school parking lot and limped for what seemed like months. We loved James Dean, kitty cats and movies with Edwardian ladies.
In college, we lived together for three years: first in the quiet wing of the women’s dorm at UNT where we got in trouble for listening to violin music too late; then at our very first apartment with Jessica and Akhenaten the cat; then in the funkiest apartment ever over the Clock Shop (no longer there) in Denton, Texas.
We both studied English and were on the same teachers’ scholarship. I watched her consistently score a few points higher on assignments we had in the classes we shared. We watched movies a lot: a Janis Joplin documentary, “Beaches,” “True Stories.” One time we ate so much Flying Tomato pizza that we had to take a bus home because we were “too full to walk.”
We student-taught in a frightening, urban middle-school together, where one of her students—probably drunk, probably high—shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette at a party one night. We shared one bad professor and other great ones.
In graduate school—in the months before I married—we were neighbors one last time at the Normal Street apartments where we lived near a pot-bellied pig named Saucy, a member of Brave Combo and a man who mooed like a cow.
Over the years, we travelled together. In France we walked on stones by the Mediterranean Sea and had a crush on a boy who worked at a bookstore in Cannes. It was in St. Tropez where she started calling me by my all-time favorite nickname: Cindycat.
In Mexico, we bathed in the waters by Tulum, drank hot coffee in the hottest heat I’d ever experienced and lounged on the beach while she read “Gone with the Wind.” (Sometimes Scarlett and her contemporaries did things so shocking she had to stop and tell me about it. Of course, I read the book later at her suggestion…and loved it.)
On our way to my grandmother’s church convention in Texarkana, we ate way too many Oreos and Funyuns. But on this particular day, camping at Pedernales Falls, after driving across Texas listening to Nirvana, we went to “bed” early to read stories we loved in a field near cows where we took this late-20th-century selfie.
Some holidays are so much like all the other holidays that they run together with the other ones in a big holiday soup. It’s difficult to distinguish one from the next. This late-20th-century selfie was not from one of those holidays.
I’m posing here with my brother, Tracy. This was the Thanksgiving that my half-sister, Paige, brought her daughter, Kelsey, to my mom’s house. Paige, who shares a father with me, had been to my mother’s home a few times, mostly just to pick me up for a visit at their home in East Texas. Only once or twice had she actually been in my mother’s home before. And this time she had come for Thanksgiving and brought her little girl.
This foreign feeling came from the fact that we were all together…under my mother’s roof. My mother was very charming that day, shining brightly in the way that she can, where the light of who she is can fill the room where she happens to be. That is my mother when she is happy, and that was my mother on that day when my sister and niece came to Thanksgiving.
My sister is 10 years younger than I am, and at that time I was beginning to struggle with whether or not I wanted to have children. I had been married for a number of years and was approaching 30. The proverbial clock was ticking, but I didn’t have that urge, that calling that so many women seemed to have. At that time, I was more infatuated with the idea of motherhood and raising a child than actually having one. My mind told me it was something I should do, that as a teacher who was married to a teacher, we were perfectly equipped for the responsibility of parenting another person. But my soul held back. It wasn’t until I spent time with Kelsey that day, that the urge started to become real for me.
It was a foreign feeling for all of us to be together. It’s not that we hadn’t been together before for holidays. We had spent many holidays together—many that blur and blend into one—with our father and her mother. My stepmother’s family was always very welcoming to me. Though they weren’t my biological family, I felt cared for by them which is my main holiday memory of my times with them…that feeling of acceptance and love.
I’m not sure how my sister felt about that Thanksgiving. I can only speculate that she was worried about what we would think of her, a teen-ager who had a little black child with the features of our family. But I was fascinated by this little girl. I could see my grandmother’s features and my stepmother’s features in her beautiful face. She was glorious with her dark skin and African hair. I didn’t know the story of her father. I’m sure Kelsey would want a holiday with that part of her family too and to have that feeling of acceptance.
Even though that day felt so different from other holidays, in my memory now it’s one of my favorite Thanksgivings, one where people who could have easily chosen differently. Instead of choosing to hold onto past perceptions of what family is and who is welcome, we chose to accept and to love. We chose to be happy; happy enough to take a late-20th-Century selfie. I want to take the feeling of that holiday with me out into the world: the feeling of even though we are not the family we expected, we belong to each other.
Who doesn’t love a Santa Selfie? I remember explaining to this particular Santa what I wanted to do because the term selfie didn’t exist yet. “Can I take a picture of us together, but, you know the kind where someone holds the camera out like this, and the picture is just two big faces?” I even held the camera out at arm’s length to demonstrate how the photo would be taken. Knowing me, I probably also showed him an exaggerated version of the smile I would use in the proposed photo…my standard “cheese.”
It was quite spontaneous, this picture. My brother was working at a Sam’s Club somewhere near Dallas, and his co-workers were having a Christmas Party/Talent Show. My brother played his base guitar that evening on the make-shift stage where we also heard songs sung, instruments played and a display of other gifts people had been quietly working on at home.
There are little stages like this that spring up in unexpected places, a little sacred space where we observe what others have done with their gifts, where we dare to share the things we’re compelled to do, the art we can’t help making. And this particular evening, the sacred stage was a space beside the closed-out cash registers, in front a few rows of folding chairs, by a table overflowing with food made with ingredients from Sam’s Club.
I wandered around the space, as I do, observing the humans in their natural habitat when something wonderful happened.
Santa Claus showed up.
I wanted to be first in line, but I knew I had to wait for the young children to go first. I was, after all, 19 now and not his intended customer. But he didn’t seem to mind me perching on his knee after handing off my camera to the person who was taking the pictures.
Before the next person had a chance to pose with Santa, I hopped up, grabbed the camera and made my proposal. And Saint Nick was very jolly indeed to pose for what would come to be known as a late-20th-century selfie.