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My daughter Gill lives in Britain, with its wonderful old buildings belonging to the aristocracy, the universities, the galleries.
As a fan of Downton Abbey, it has not escaped her notice that these structures are graced with ancestral paintings, adding an air of decorum and gravitas not often captured in modern homes. These portraits of stern, proper, haughty individuals are relics of bygone times.
But when Gill came to visit us for the holidays, she decided that a Canadian version, a personality-infused series of photo portraits of her own family, would be the perfect gift. We rarely appear all together in a picture and, since everyone would be gathered in one place over the holidays, the timing was perfect.
Before she arrived, she went online to book the photo session at a well-known department-store portrait studio. Her siblings colluded with their sister and were well prepared. I was not. I received an e-mail: "Be ready to do something together on December 24. Look cute!" It was all very cloak and dagger.
I wouldn't have been surprised had my daughter tried to book the Queen's official photographer for the occasion; I also wouldn't have been surprised had the esteemed photographer turned down the request with a sneer, sensing that she wouldn't be able to cope with our motley entourage. In fairness, few could.
In the vision in my head, the formal family photo would hang over the fireplace or in a prominent spot on the wall. No matter that it would have to compete with my collection of birds (carvings, sculptures, photographs, lamps – even a tiny canary footprint in plaster of Paris), tchotchkes from our travels, photos of our oddball pets and the occasional painting by a struggling local artist. I knew in my heart that this picture would eclipse every other piece of art in my house.
My two daughters and I arrived at the mall parking lot to see my son trudging across the walkway to the store, a garment bag slung over his shoulder. He had brought the expensive suit he'd recently purchased for his best friend's wedding. I hadn't seen him in a suit since he was 13 and had to attend a friend's Bar Mitzvah.
"Oh, he didn't!" Gill yelled. "He's gonna make the rest of us look like bums!"
Perhaps this would be an opportune moment to explain that, riding shotgun in our car was “The Pig,” my younger daughter’s beagle, who has a rap sheet longer than Snoop Dogg’s. (This includes but is not limited to: breaking into refrigerators, conducting smash-and-grab operations on kitchen counters, rearranging chairs to walk the length of the harvest table looking for food.)
In what she referred to as a “slight oversight,” my daughter confessed that she had not specifically mentioned that the dog would be coming to be part of our session. She operates under the theory that it’s better to apologize later than ask permission before.
As we skulked our way to the studio, hiding The Pig between rows of men’s slacks and shirts, nobody stopped us. We must have looked determined, and possibly mildly threatening.
The photographer blanched when she saw Piggy. “But you can’t …” she started to say.
“Oh, but I booked over the Internet from the U.K. and then my sister tried to call to confirm but couldn’t ever get through to talk to anyone,” Gill insisted (ergo, it was the store’s fault The Pig was there). “Please, couldn’t you just make this wee exception?” we asked pathetically. “She is a member of our family, really the leader of our pack …”
Then Annie piped up in her most anguished, heart-wrenching tone: “You may see a dog, but she’s my child!”
The photographer knew she was defeated. “Okay,” she said pleasantly. “Just please be quiet and we’ll do this as quickly as possible. If anyone asks, she’s a guide dog.”
My son waltzed in, to many comments from the roomful of four women about how long it takes a man to get dressed, looking as if he’d just stepped out of GQ. Gill, Annie and I almost fainted. “Who are you?” He looked, with his already-greying hair and exquisite outfit with silk tie, like The Dad in the family. Even The Pig seemed to recognize that he now truly was her Alpha.
The Pig and my son ran a close competition for most photogenic. The photographer joined in our antics and The Pig, against all odds, was perfectly behaved, turning her head when asked, sitting, posing with her best side visible, hiding her huge cancerous teat. Afterward, we skulked back nonchalantly through the store to the exit door, The Pig between us and the racks of clothes.
I imagine staff may have smiled later viewing the security footage of The Pig, jaunty tail high, head held proudly, marching through the store to have her picture taken professionally with her family. If The Queen is photographed with her corgis, The Pig can be photographed with us.
Pity our walls don’t do justice to the photos.
Laurie Best lives in Waterloo, Ont.