The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


February 9, 2023

Picture Perfect

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Ten years ago I was sitting at my daughter’s graduation from Fuller Seminary. Haley was just about the same age I was when graduating from Harvard Divinity forty years earlier. One significant exception was I didn’t recall hugging the Dean of the Divinity School as she did President Richard Mouw as a reflection of deep regard for him and his extraordinary relationship with the students and faculty. 

There are many other differences between her experience and the years that separated us but one thing is the same. Along with hundreds of other parents, I was taking hurried and mostly blurred pictures of our graduates hoping to capture the moment in one crystal-clear shot suitable for framing. Looking at my iPhone then I realized I failed. Every shot was fuzzy, dark and completely useless for posting on social media or passing along. I was disappointed and a little embarrassed as I like to take good pictures.

Still, it took me back almost four decades to the only picture I have of my own graduation. It was taken by my mother as I came through the gate into the Yard for the commencement ceremony. I remember her shouting (my mother never shouted) to my father “Look, there he is!” That could have described anyone in the long line, but everyone around knew it was me. There was something about my mother’s voice that made it clear exactly who she meant. I was a little embarrassed and proud at the same time. She raised the camera and shaking visibly she took the one shot for which she had time.

It was weeks before she had it developed and when it came back it was blurred. Not badly but you could tell her hands were shaking when she released the shutter. For years, I was as disappointed as she was that it was not a clear record of such a moment.

After she died, I looked at the picture again and realized something. That picture was more about her than about me. The obvious shaking was due to pride and excitement. My parents grew up poor - Dad, a pastor’s son and Mom, the daughter of an often unemployed house painter - and neither had education beyond high school. Both had gone to work immediately after graduation and lived on half the salary of my father while saving everything my mother earned. It took years of sacrifice for them to achieve what had come so much more easily for those who had the advantage of college but they were never ashamed of their lack of formal education and showed no resentment toward those who had that opportunity. I learned gradually that there was a whole generation of men and women whose lives were the same. They worked harder and longer than many of their generation. They saved and did without. They focused on the future of their kids as much as their own success but there was no illusion of legacy admissions into an elite college or university. So, for one of us to finish graduate school and seminary was almost as much their achievement as mine. They were more than bystanders that morning. They were walking with me. Yes, my mother’s hands trembled when she took the shot but it’s that very trembling I remember most about that moment. Had the picture turned out perfectly I would have seen nothing of her joy and excitement. I would have had a picture of me suitable for hanging with my degree. Instead, I have a rare picture and an unintended self-portrait of her in that priceless moment. The framed degree will fade while that hurried out of focus capture will not.

I would not trade that blurred shot for anything. It captured the person who took it more than I could have in a lifetime. It is a snapshot of my mother’s love and devotion that was – unlike the picture itself – completely unshaken and perfectly plain. It is picture perfect. 

I hope Haley will look back years from now and think about what caused my hands to shake and the final picture to be a bit blurry. I hope she will see what I see now.

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