The family dog licks Tiger Woods’ face, as Elin Nordegren cuddles the couple’s daughter and newborn son. It’s their last family photograph – at least the last one the public saw. It was taken nine months before Woods famously crashed his car in 2009, shattering not only his windshield, but this 4×6 vision of familial bliss.
All broken families have them, the last picture of a doomed civilization still precariously intact. Mine was taken five years ago on a trip to Portland to celebrate a trio of family birthdays. In the picture, the six of us sit smiling on a boulder: Mommy and Daddy surrounded by happy, unsuspecting children, too young to notice that their parents’ knees point tellingly apart.
Last year, I found this photo under my daughter’s pillow, bent and sticky from the clutch of small hands. When she saw me notice, she looked embarrassed and pushed it deep under the sheets, presenting a dilemma everyone fouled by divorce must face: What to do with the family photographs?
For intact families, photographs are cherished treasures, the things you run for first if there’s a fire. But divorce destroys these heirlooms just like it does a couple’s bank balance or their children’s sense of security. The pictures are forever tainted, painful and awkward reminders of a period of life from which people have to recover.
Divorcees who remarry often purge these photographs quickly for the sake of the new spouse. It’s trickier for the spouse who does not remarry, particularly if he or she has custody of the kids. A parent who prominently displayed photographs of a broken family would be considered delusional, in need of sustained therapy.
But for a child, it’s a simpler thing. Her mother and father will always be her parents, her family, whether they live together or not. A last family photograph simply shows the people she loves the most, in one place together. For children whose parents divorce while they are young, it may be the only image they remember of their parents together.
I pulled the photograph out from under the covers, and my daughter and I looked at it while I smoothed the wrinkled edges.
“It’s okay,” I reassured her. “I like it, too. Why don’t you leave it out?”
The next time I looked, it was taped to the wall above her bed, somewhat askew, like our new lives. There it remained, despite several room reorganizations.
Before my divorce, I considered the separation of two feuding spouses a necessary evil. Now, three years later, I’ve come to consider it reverse utilitarianism: the greatest amount of misery for the greatest number of people.
Like paint, pain splatters. It dirties not only the children, but the divorcing couple’s parents, their siblings, their friends, all of whom face the agonizing reality that someone must now be cut, literally and figuratively, from the pictures that fill the albums and hang in the hallways. Divorcing people tend to think of their own problems, and not the ones they cause for others, like the invalidation of a decade’s worth of expensive portraiture.
Recently I tried to purchase the rights to publish Tiger Woods’ last family photograph for a website where I hoped to compile a collection. But a representative of Getty Images, which held the rights, told me the image had been withdrawn at the golfer’s request.
While it can still be seen on the Internet, the official photo is no more, just like the family. This is, in itself, a pity, because last family photographs, as painful as they may be, are powerful arguments against divorce. Even when knees point apart, publicly revealing private discord between spouses, there is value in these images. The last family photograph is a testament to what once was, and what still could be, if the couple refuses to give up on the marriage.
A marriage doesn’t break down overnight; plates rumble and shift long before fissures appear, before the husband and wife smile tightly one last time for the camera. Like any photograph, it’s not quite the truth, but not fully a lie. It’s a fiction in sepia tint.
But, unlike a fable or fairy tale, it’s an attainable fiction, if spouses refuse to quit when things get hard, if they truly embrace “for better or for worse”, if they refuse to entertain divorce as an option. Or, if already divorced, if they refrain from rushing to remarry.
In August, Lena Henderson and Roland Davis were married in New York, a half-century after their divorce. Their daughter, who is now a grandmother, told reporters, “It’s every child’s dream, every child who has ever been in a family where divorce has occurred, that your parents would come back together.” Fifty years later, the children of Lena and Roland had never stopped hoping. People who are contemplating divorce need to be reminded of that.
Meanwhile, my last family photograph has a new home. It’s still in my daughter’s room, though no longer taped to the wall. She put it in a photo frame that her father and his wife brought home from a trip to France. My daughter is 10; the irony escapes her. But grown-ups know. Whether it’s stuck to the bottom of a trash bin, or held aloft by a plastic Eiffel Tower, the last family photograph will exist forever in the wistful memories of the children of divorce. They are remmants of love, washed away, in a family’s tiny tsunami.