Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Family Portrait

The Horwedel kids - circa 1982. (Photo by Olan Mills Studios)

The coupon came in the mail one day in late August of ‘82. Normally, a coupon like that would be tossed in the trash (like 95% of all our other junk mail, and occasionally the actual mail too if my old man got to it first) but for some reason my mother saved this coupon and set it aside.

None of us kids paid any attention to the mail – that was mom’s job – so I don’t think any of us even noticed the coupon or what it was for. We also hadn't noticed the fact that my mother had been scheming to get us into a portrait studio for a few years. The coupon for a free sitting at Olan Mills Studio and a $15 - 8 x 10 was just the final push she needed.

“Kids, we haven’t had a family portrait in nearly five years.” She said to us, seemingly out of the blue one day. “I’ve got this coupon for Olan Mills in Sandusky, I think we should get one done before you all go back to school.”

Looking back, I can see my mom’s point. I was about to be a senior in high school, my sister Dina was off to her first year of college, my brother Lance was going to be a freshman in high school, and my other brother Duke was a seventh grader – it was hard to say when any of us would be living under the same roof again after that summer, and I think my mom wanted to make sure she marked that transitional time in her kid’s lives (and hers too) by having us sit for a formal portrait.

That was where my mother severely underestimated the amount of resistance with which her idea would be met.

“Ahh, for Christ’s sake Mom, none of us wants to wear some stupid monkey suit to some stupid portrait studio so we can roast our asses off under some hot lights for two hours!” I complained.

“Yeah Mom, Lon’s right.” Lance chimed in. “Why can’t we just set up a tripod and shoot one ourselves?”

“Because I know you guys too well.” My mom said. “You’ll probably go and do something moronic … besides, Lon can’t print color in his darkroom and Olan Mills can. Now just make your mother happy and go and do this Goddammit!”

“Fine!” I snorted, “But I’m not wearing a stinkin’ suit.”

As luck would have it, I didn’t have a suit that fit anyway. Nor, it turns out, did my brothers. We’d all been victims of growth spurts that summer (thank God) and my mother soon realized that the $15 – 8 x 10 could well cost her hundreds of dollars is she were to outfit her three sons in new suits for the portrait.

Quietly, we all breathed a sigh of relief, except, of course my mother, who wasn’t so easily deterred.

“Well, just wear dress shirts then.” She said sternly.

“Awww Mom, c’mon!” We complained in unison.

“Look, you’re getting the picture taken and you’re going to look nice.” She fired back.

“Wait – whaddaya mean ‘you’re getting the picture taken?’ Don’t you mean ‘we’re’ getting the picture taken?” I asked.

“Oh no! I’m not getting my picture taken.” My mother said, realizing for the first time that maybe we had the upper hand.

“And why not?” I asked.

My mother fished around for a good excuse, but all she could come up with was: “Because I just got my hair cut and I look like a damned squirrel.”

“Well if you ain’t doin’ it, we ain’t doin’ it!” I said.

My mother calmly lit up a cigarette, gave me her patented "evil eye" and then blew a puff of smoke in my face.

“Guess again!” She said.

It didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem right. But we kids knew what we had to do. We loved our mother very much. We couldn't let her down. That’s why we knew it was both in her, and our, best interest to directly disobey her.

As painful as we knew it might be, we surely didn’t want to saddle my poor mother with some cheesy portrait - one that didn’t reflect the true, rebellious individuals she had raised. We needed to give her something that was uniquely us … something she could really be proud of … something she wouldn’t soon forget! A photo she would cherish for years to come – one that would more accurately reflect the individual spirit in all her kids, but most importantly, one she would never place on a mantle or a wall anywhere in the house. Even if it meant she was going to kick our asses when she saw the finished product.

Getting all four siblings on the same page was the easy part. None of us wanted any part of a formal sitting anyhow, so once we decided to change “formal” to “abnormal” we actually started looking forward to the photo session.

The first part of the ruse was for us boys to pick out dress shirts and ties from the closet we shared, making sure we complained every step of the way so my mother wouldn’t become suspicious. My sister actually orchestrated the whole thing, and for the first time in our childhood, we actually worked together as a team. It wasn’t exactly "Oceans 11" or anything, but it was pretty exciting. There we were, trying to pull a fast one on our mother – the same woman who had brought all of us into the world - and the same woman who let us know as often as possible she could just as easily take us out.

Picking out clothes we had no intention of wearing was easy - picking out clothes we actually wanted to wear proved a little more daunting. My sister kept waffling back and forth between something slutty Goth, or something slutty punk, eventually settling for a hybrid of the two complete with a plastic lobster. My brother Lance quickly chose a “British rock star” look, which wasn’t much of a stretch since he was a really good guitarist already. My youngest brother Duke had his sights set on a military look, which also wasn't much of a problem until he threatened to boycott the whole thing when we told him he couldn’t bring real weapons to the sitting. We got him to change his mind when we told him he could smoke one of my dad’s cigars instead.

I, unfortunately, had no idea what the hell I was going to wear. I toyed with the idea of showing up in just my underwear since I had been a notorious streaker as a child, but my sister had her reservations about the photographer even taking a photo of us dressed as we were, let alone mostly nude.

Eventually I settled on a very unoriginal “We are the 80’s” look, complete with a dorky headband it looked like I stole from Olivia Newton John, and an open shirt with an arrowhead necklace I actually did steal from my dad.

Once our outfits were chosen, we stuffed them into a gym bag and hid them in the back of our 1976 Gran Torino station wagon. As luck would have it, my mother scheduled our photo session on a weekday in the early afternoon, meaning my dad would still be at work. Our other stroke of luck happened to be the fact that our mother didn’t drive - that and she was more than happy to get us the hell out of the house for a few hours, meaning she wouldn’t be along for the session either.

Unsupervised, it was our responsibility to make good on our promise to our mother, but it was even more important to make good on our mission to remain ourselves.

A mile out of town, I quickly pulled the station wagon off the road into a cornfield I often went parking with my high school girlfriend. Once safely out of view, my brothers, my sister and I, changed out of our dress clothes and into our official portrait session attire. If any of us had second thoughts, none of us voiced them.

We remained nervously quiet the rest of the drive to Sandusky. I think we were more afraid of getting into trouble from the photographer than we were my mom. At that point it didn’t matter. We pulled into the Olan Mills parking lot without saying a word. My sister checked her hair and makeup in the rearview mirror one last time as I grabbed the coupon off the front seat. Lance snatched his guitar out of the back of the station wagon and slammed the tailgate shut. Duke stepped out of the car, glanced out over Lake Erie, and lit his cigar.

The four of us walked shoulder to shoulder toward the studio. As we approached the front door, a well-dressed family of four who had just finished their session, exited the studio. They froze, somewhat horrified at our sight. The dad grabbed up his wife and two little girls, both dressed in pink frilly dresses, and pulled them away from us.

“Excuse me sir.” I said politely.

My brother Duke just tipped his army helmet and calmly said, “Good day, Ma’am.”

Behind us we heard the nice family of four scurrying through parking lot, followed by the sound of slamming doors and tires squealing. Ahead of us we heard the gasp of the studio receptionist when she saw us walk into the waiting room.

“Is my three o’clock here yet Phyllis?” The photographer shouted from the studio in the back room.

Phyllis wasn’t quite sure if we were the three o’clock, or if we were there to rob the joint. My sister and I assured her that we meant no malice, and we were, indeed, her three o’clock appointment. While we were talking to Phyllis, the photographer popped his head in to see what was taking so long. When he caught sight of us he stopped dead in his tracks and did a double take.

Duke snapped his heels together and saluted him.

A moment of awkward silence followed as the photographer looked us over. Phyllis waited for someone to say something or tell her what to do. Silence continued to hang in the air when a huge ash broke off the end of Duke’s lit cigar and flitted down onto the floor. Seconds later, the photographer erupted in laughter.

Soon, we all were laughing - even Phyllis (nervously).

“Come on in kids.” The photographer said, still chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief. “But son, first you have to put out that cigar.”

In the end, everything worked out just fine, and even though he made my brother put out his cigar (he did let him keep it in his mouth) I’d like to think we made that photographer’s day. He still posed us in an awfully formal fashion, but in some ways it made the picture even more funny and unique.

After the shoot was over, we drove back to the same cornfield and changed back into our duds. When we arrived back at the house my mother asked us how things went.

“Ahh … just fine." I said, "It wasn’t so bad after all.”

Like I said earlier, the mail was always my mother’s thing, so none of us knew for sure when D-Day would arrive, we just knew we were in for an ass-whoopin’ when it did. Then, one day while we were watching TV in the living room, we heard my mother crying in the kitchen. Not knowing what possibly could be wrong, we went to check it out, and there, on the kitchen table were roughly eight proofs from our photo shoot.

Slowly, we began backing away, fully expecting her to wield a wooden spoon from underneath the table and start smacking us upside our heads. But she was unarmed (not even a measuring cup) and she couldn’t stop crying. Soon, we realized she was crying from laughter.

We couldn’t believe it, our plan had actually worked! We’d directly disobeyed her wishes by trying to capture the essence of our individualism with our quirky portrait and our mother seemed to truly appreciate it.

My mother liked the portrait so much she proudly displayed it in our house right up until the day she died last March. The week she died, my brothers, my sister and I, found ourselves under the same roof for the first time in a long time, just like my mother had predicted nearly 30-years earlier.

We looked through a lot of family photo albums that week, but I think I can safely say our favorite photo came from that hot afternoon in late August, when we all piled into our Gran Torino station wagon and headed west toward the Olan Mills Studio in Sandusky, Ohio, with the warm summer wind in our hair, and cigars a blazin'!

(For the record, we had so much fun the first time at the Olan Mills Studio; we actually made a repeat performance the very next year – with coupon in hand, of course.)


  1. Hilarious. Your mom was a good sport for not disowning you.

  2. Totally hilarious. And, um, nice arrow head, Lon!