By Ellen Nimmo
You have that person in your family, right? You know the one.
The one who coerces and corrals each and every wild-haired cousin, each reluctant father, each busy mother and unsure baby into an invisible frame – instructing the group and individuals as a maestro might:
Tap tap tap
Now come in just a little closer. . . Yes, over by this tree. OK now look here, look here. OK, now you, tilt your head just a bit to the left, and you, can you put your arm around your cousin? Pretend you like each other, OK? Alright, now everyone take one step forward. Except, wait, you two on the end go back where you were. Squeeze in just a bit. You two switch spots. Come out of the shadow there in the back. OK. Now everyone look here. Right here. OK. All together now – CHEESE!
A sigh of relief spreads through the unenthusiastic subjects and their groans and eye rolling eventually cease as they meander off, returning to whatever it was they were pulled from.
If you don’t have someone like this in your family, I hope you get one. Heck, maybe you’ll become one.
For my family – we had J.P. Bell. My uncle by marriage, J.P. is a retired doctor, pilot, professional photographer, father, husband, lover of trains and railroads, wildlife and travel, hiking and fly-fishing. A renaissance man, truly. At family gatherings he might plop down beside you, ask you a few questions, and somehow weave the conversation into some new fascinating topic he’d just discovered or devoted some time to, in the hope that you might appreciate some sliver, and the conversation could flourish. My conversational skills felt dim in the lamp of his knowledge, still, one had to admire the chances he extended. It was a very uncle-y think to do. An outsider might have thought him hyper, intense even, but we simply knew him as J.P.
It was a bit strange (and awesome) the way he would orchestrate those family photos. Letting the complaints and passive protests roll off him, the mission was at hand and he wouldn’t be derailed. And besides, he was far too busy capturing light to be daunted by the darkness of naysayers. Whether we knew it or not, he knew: someday we’d delight in seeing those familiar, familial faces all smooshed together and smiling.
As a youngster, watching my uncle steam ahead during these moments, I often wondered why he persisted. Why did he seem to care so much about capturing the day, the moment? How come he didn’t seem to notice that everyone was grumbling, uninterested in his artistry, his service to us?
I may never know. That’s OK.
But thank God he did. Truly.
As our family changed and grew, as cousins became wives and husbands, then parents, as people spread further and further out across the country, as grandparents left their earthy bodies, making room for the memory of them to become legend – we had J.P.’s photos to look back on and remember.
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” they say. And, in this case, I think “they” are right. For me, J.P.’s photos have come to be a reminder of what was always true: our childhoods weren’t perfect, but they were often effervescent with laughter, dappled with light.
In these later years, if you had the sweet treat of visiting Uncle J.P. and Aunt Candy at their semi-secluded-by-trees home in south-central Fayetteville, Arkansas you’d be beckoned to the porch at some point, for a portrait.
Here are two such portraits. My mother and father. Call me biased if you must, but I love them.
It’s as though, by the strange enchantment known as artistry, my uncle is able to pull out a reflection of essence, a pixel of their very spirits. I’ll leave it to you do draw your own conclusions about my folks, this time anyway, but take it from me – J.P. captured them precisely. Beautifully.
As I think (and look) back on those Family Reunions, impromptu gatherings, and Thanksgiving meals, I’m struck at how, through J.P.’s insistence and orchestration we now have the hard evidence: a gallery of lives illuminated by love.
Now come in just a little closer, out of the shadow, and look towards the light. Yep, right there.
Here’s to more moments, captured in tunnels of light.