Often we cannot see things until they are reflected back at us. Trust me on this; six years ago I wrote a memoir with portrayals of others that annoyed friends and relatives. Seeing yourself through the lens of another is jarring and sensitive, but ultimately, educational.

I never fully understood my relationship with Dustin until I saw it in a snapshot from our wedding 12 years ago. In the photo, which has a permanent spot on my dresser, Dustin and I are standing shoulder to shoulder. He is in his Navy dress whites. He has more hair, less body. I am in my wedding dress, and though I have the same amount of hair as I do now, in the pictures, I am thin and young.

We are holding hands, but the image doesn’t show it — just our arms pressed together. I am smiling and laughing and looking just past Dustin. He is looking down and over at my profile. He is smiling with his eyes.
There is a certain twinkle in his expression. For years I couldn’t describe what that twinkle meant. Then one day, while I was grabbing a pair of socks from the dresser drawer, it occurred to me. Dustin was adoring me — just as he has always done since we met.

In life, I dance around Dustin while he stays steady. Or, in his words, “Without Sarah, I’d be more boring than I already am.” All of this became clear to me in one snapshot.

More recently, I am working with artist Andrea Hand, the photographer for “Dinner With the Smileys,” and on a weekly basis, my relationship with my three boys is reflected back at me.

Andrea is not your typical photographer. That’s why I picked her. She is a storyteller. Her words are images.

But when Andrea told me that she likes to “capture the ordinary moments of a family,” I grew a little concerned. There are few “ordinary” moments among my boys. Our moments usually involve lightsabers, tussles on the floor and fake Groucho Marx-like glasses and mustaches.

Was Andrea prepared to see how weird my family really is?

With patience, Andrea told me, I would see moments I never knew existed and that our mother-son relationship would unfold in the images.

At our first session, the only thing I saw was Lindell crawling on the floor, acting like a dog. All of the boys needed a haircut and I was shocked and embarrassed that I had in fact let them wear old, stained T-shirts to “Dinner With the Smileys.”

Then Andrea put several of the photos together in a sequence. She played them for me as a slide show. In the first image, Lindell was at the table with the family and our guest. In the next image, he was on the floor with the dog. The third and fourth images had him crawling into my lap, petting my face and laying his head on my shoulder. In the last photograph, he was on the floor again with the dog.

“It’s like there’s a rubber band between the two of you,” Andrea said.
Lindell eats, leaves the table, comes back to my lap and then leaves again. Andrea had dozens of pictures of this same “routine” from different evenings.

In my mind, I had it differently: Lindell left the table without asking and then bothered me in my lap while I was trying to talk. The pictures showed something else entirely. They showed a little boy who is beginning to think about the larger world but who always comes back to the safety of his mother’s lap.

The photographs don’t show my older boys doing this. Indeed, someday the rubber band between me and Lindell will also snap.

I usually hire photographers to capture the big moments, like at a wedding. Who knew that having one follow your family on a regular day could capture the even bigger moments?

On a different night, Andrea showed me a slide show of Ford talking at the table. Ford always has had a larger-than-life presence. He can talk for hours if left unchallenged. So I try, as best I can, to manage his opportunities to talk and tell stories, leaving room for the other boys. It’s a delicate balance, but my fear has been that Owen will resent his older brother for stealing the spotlight.

In Andrea’s slide show, one-by-one, I saw something else. When Ford speaks, Owen looks at him adoringly. His eyes twinkle. He hangs on every word. He smiles uncontrollably. He waits patiently for Ford to finish, whenever that might be.

I had never given it much thought, but this is the way Ford and Owen’s relationship has always been. Ford takes center stage, and Owen loves him for it.

Someday, Owen will probably marry someone a lot like Ford. And he will look at his wife in the same way. He will be steady and patient, adoring her while she dances around him. His expression will give it all away.

I wonder if they will ever see it.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.