Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Portrait of a (young) lady

It all began innocently enough. My daughter's preschool teacher approached, poster template in hand, her smile belying her somewhat startling news. She informed me, with the lyrical sri lankan lilt that brings out the drama and emotion in the simplest of children's story, that my daughter had a project for Family Day weekend: to create a poster (guided by the aformentioned template) about herself, with help from her family. I must confess my first thought behind my smile-and-nod was "homework? How can my preschooler have homework?"

Such worries were soon surmounted by a single word: "pictures."  I, as the proud parent, was to decorate said celebratory poster with photographs, presumably of my daughter in all her recent glory. Photographs I suspected might not, in fact, exist. Upon returning home, I confirmed my fears: I had not taken a single picture of my first born since Hallowe'en, and the only decent shot from that episode included her little brother wandering in the foreground, clad in naught but a diaper and his teething necklace. Perhaps not the best choice to grace her preschool walls - the boy has enough unwanted admirers (read: impulsive huggers and squealers) among his sister's peers as it is - but the other pictures were even older.

I had known for some time that my relationship with my camera was on rocky ground. Far from the days where we feverishly documented infantile cuteness, our interactions had dwindled to the point where the closest we came to cooperation was the odd occasion where I picked up the dreaded device only to discover that it had worn down its battery waiting for me to remember its existence, yet again. If the thing was sentient, I'd accuse it of being passive-aggressive. Recent history aside, too much of my teacher's pet mentality persists to allow me to botch my daughter's very first homework assignment (let's face it - when your 4-year-old has homework, you have homework). Clearly a photo-shoot was in order. Just as soon as the battery finished charging.

Thus, aging Lumix in hand, I stalked my unsuspecting prey. Confession time again (it's Lent after all): my aversion to digitally capturing my daughter's precious moments lies not only in my inadequate skills and clunky equipment. It is also due to her growing self-awareness, the kind which interprets "smile for the camera" as "make hopelessly awkward and unnatural faces until the lens goes away". I know that stage well. In fact, I don't believe I've ever quite left it. I'm starting to wonder if it's some form of modesty in an increasingly technological age, a veil made not of pins and fabric but of squints and smirks and furrowed brows that mask a fair countenance from an audience whose membership lies beyond one's control.

Given that the target audience, in this case at least, involved only those who had already seen her in person, I felt no guilt in using stealth, nor in telepathically urging my grudging mechanical accomplice to tell the truth for once. Whoever invented the phrase "the camera doesn't lie" hasn't seen my pictures; the objects appear in the view finder alright, but the spirit that leads my attempt to preserve what I see for posterity (or, at least, my own personal archives) continues to elude me. I'm sure that acquiring some knowledge of lighting, shutter-speed, and good old fashioned practice would lead to better results in child portraiture than parapsychology, but in the jungle of the living room, time and telepathy were all that I had. And, for once, they were all I needed.

The camera did not lie, but it revealed a truth I'm still loath to accept: my baby's growing up. Those wispy blond curls that took forever to come in now spiral nearly to her shoulders. Any trace of baby fat has long been gone, but I had not realized how its lack had elongated her from cheek to chin with an aching maturity. Even curled up in an armchair, her coltish limbs declare her a school-girl; her choice of book that afternoon may have been of the board variety, but her serious study of the pictures therein reminded me more of the focused features of school-aged bookworms than the wide-eyed fascination she bore back when she turned those stiff pages with chubby fingers rather than the delicate digits that now grace her hands.

It was a timely reminder. School hunting season is in full swing, and many an hour has been spent browsing school websites, attending open houses, and attempting to grasp an understanding of Edmonton Public's school bus system. As I continue to buckle her into a five-point harness for every car ride, it's hard to believe my baby is ready to ride a yellow bus, unfettered and practically unsupervised. And yet the prospect fills her not with fear or trepidation, but excitement and wonder, so I squelch my worries and think of strategies to encourage this budding independence.

Come September, it will be time to loosen those apron strings, mix my metaphors, and watch her fly. In the meantime, however, I'll keep pulling out the board books, indulging requests for extra-long snuggles, and rocking out to Raffi before he's shunned for whichever boy band is making young girls swoon and the rest of us gag. Remind me to buy earplugs.

P.S. the poster was a total success - mostly because my little chatter box provided her teacher with extensive background on all the princesses and fairies she drew on every spare inch of the paper (including under all the photographs). There wasn't room for the fruits of my impromptu photo-shoot after all, so instead I've placed the reminder of my growing girlie on my very own fridge. Thus my education continues.

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