Imitations in the Frames

Written By: Brendan Donohue

The walls in the hallway of our Noyac home are decorated with many windowed picture frames. Although the walls have been painted many times over, usually while the house lays empty through the winter, the pictures in the frames have not been updated in a decade. The subjects of the photographs are doing what subjects are expected to do in the photographs adorning the walls of Noyac summer houses. Dads and grandfathers fish on charter boats off of Montauk point, kids splash about in the canal behind the house, families gather around for barbecue with desperate dogs waiting at their feet. Ice cream paints the faces of children on their birthdays, and a cousin gets caught in the net of a hammock, like the fish in the killie net being pulled out of the water behind him.
I hardly recognize myself in many of these photos. The most recent were taken a few years after the birth of my youngest brothers, at a time when I was not yet even a teenager. But I need not look for myself only in photos that include me. We, as many families like to, mirror the older pictures with newer ones. The generations who were kids before us always loved the idea (and image) of younger, newer children in the poses and settings that echoed their own childhoods. They laughed like one might laugh at a child in a tuxedo, awkward but representing something recognizable and familiar. Yet they also felt a tight connection in seeing their own offspring emulate their upbringing. There are photos from the early 60s and on– My siblings and I gather to imitate my father and his siblings, each of us choosing someone specific to mimic.
We were careful and proud. I would emulate the bicep flex of my uncle at ten years old, while my sister captured the pretty smile of an aunt at age fourteen. My brother would work hard to smile with his hand getting cut in the gill of a fish, the same as dad had done, and boast that the one he’d caught was even bigger. My four brothers and my sister and I, we challenged ourselves in how closely to the family that grew up in our house we could be.
These attempts at living a life similar extended beyond the purpose of framing pictures beneath the original. My five siblings and I would not stop an activity after the digital camera had snapped the photo. We would not be finished when my parents were satisfied with our human pyramid or neat congregation around the stern of the boat, or careful gymnastics on the boat’s trailer. These choreographed photographs were followed by continued shenanigans that quickly become genuine exploration. When a neighbor gave us a 14-foot aluminum boat, we were more excited to skiff around the bay like our dad had done than we were to waterski on our own modern 25-foot Striper. I can hardly begin to describe the excitement when I got to wear an old green water sport life vest that my dad had worn in a photo of him at age thirteen. Me? In that legendary, ancestral flotation jacket from the third picture in the frame?
We were the 2000s version of people who’d lived lives similar to ours. 30 years earlier, my dad and his siblings had played a version of Trivial Pursuit that had the current president as Richard Nixon, while ours recognized George W. Bush. My father and his parents went to the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor village for crime novels, while we downloaded PDFs off that same library’s Wi-Fi. But through these imitations and little reflections on the walls we could cut through the changes and bring our generations together through images. Emphasizing the commonalities we had with poses and expressions, we found ourselves tied together in experience and family. These photographs allowed me and my siblings a connection with our families past that feels like it could not have happened in a place besides our little cottage in Noyac.