Blue synthetic leather, rippled and cold to my fingers, the gold letters plainly spell “Photos.” I flip through the pages laughing at the 70’s styles: bell bottoms, butterfly sleeves, and blonde flipped hair. Smiling faces seems to dance between the vinyl pages—a childhood of strong family ties from South Dakota to Louisiana. I wonder if my happiness quota had been filled up too soon; my sadness in my adult life tends to drown me. And yet, sitting on my couch today, espresso brown leather album smooth to my fingers still show pictures filled with smiles. Where are all my tears?
Three teens sitting on the Cameron’s couch, shocked, mouths opened as we explained that Social Services had called and explained that due to “your father’s drinking and neglect of the children, we are putting your siblings in foster care.” My husband’s face drained of color. We made phone calls: aunts in Michigan, grandma in Arkansas and one in Arizona, uncle in Colorado, and even wealthy family friends in South Dakota. No luck and certainly no use.
“Sorry, this is a mess your parents created.”
“This is terrible news, I’m sure, Jeremy, but it is truly out of your hands.”
“The kids will be fine and they know where they can find all of us.”
These were not the sentences we thought we’d hear. Smiling I say to my husband of just a year and 2 months, “Well, I’m always up for an adventure.”
“We decided that even though it will be the biggest challenge of our life, we want you three to move in with us and try to end this circle of alcoholism. We want you all to have a future and know that you’re loved.” We meant those words. We really did. Smiles and tears, our stomachs ached from the stress, yet I smiled and hugged. Why didn’t I scream and run?
Smile is defined as “a facial expression characterized by turning up the corners of the mouth; usually shows pleasure or amusement” and “To express cheerful acceptance or equanimity” ( Why then, do I smile so often? Three teenagers move in just a year after marriage—I smile. Husband’s two parents dead 4 years into our marriage—I smile grasping shoulders, handing out tissues. Three more family members, my grandfather and both Jeremy’s grandparents—more smiles as I write poetry reflecting on their life and memories. And the saddest, my unborn baby born at 31 weeks. It took a while for me to smile, but I do. I smile at students’ silly antics in class, smile for the fact that Carter is alive, I am alive, I am alive; I have to remind myself sometimes when my alarm rings. “Cheerful acceptance” is not how I feel, yet I smile.
Hamlet tells us, “that one smiles, and smiles and is a villain” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1:5: 105-109). Wickedness does seep between the upturned lips. At times my rage is so great, I lose who I am and smiles become sleep which becomes dreams. This anger, this unanswered why screaming in my brain comes out in my writing at times:
“Metal Remains”

I dream my fingers are knives,
Corruption upon my skin
They scratch and tear, yet
Only redness remains,
I want to bleed to
Feel the pain on the
Inside be released…
And yet these fingers, soft
And gentle lie waste in
My bed, strapped they remain,
Paralyzed with fear and needing freedom.

I stare at nubby, white ceiling
Not knowing the future,
Take a big bite and let its jagged fumes pierce, it taunts me.
Getting out of bed, I would pummel it, cottage cheese would remain,
Instead, barren and cold, the grey trays and food uneaten are all
That comfort me.

When old women say, “It smells of snow,” trying to chit chat,
Teeth clenched, I dream again
Fingers with blades.
Leave me rotting, “TV remote?” they ask.
“Why would I want to escape this paradise?”
Sarcasm is now my voice.

Family huddles outside my room,
“He isn’t a religious man,” I hear,
“Should we call a priest? Does he have friends?”
Asks a neighbor,
I smile and imagine my flesh hardening to metal,
forgetting the questions people ask, it’s
really none of their business.

My wish is granted,
Transformed and gone,
Cuts, chops, and chasms I can create.
Yet, I never imagined the
Feeling without a soul, still smiling--
It is cold, bitter as a penny.

Angus Trumble, author of the The Brief History of the Smile, explains that the smile is first captured in Greek sculptures, “their mysterious smile animates them, gives them life and breath” (McCaughey 1). As I imagined molting into metal, I still smiled and life did remain.
Today I wonder about the wearers of smiles; Mona Lisa smiles yet her inspiration remains a mystery. Retracing my steps on a Tuesday in January, I recall a conversation that pulled on my tear-strings, yet out came a smile, my own mystery of why I smiled. My friend belly round babe inside, due in six short weeks explains that her OB appointment was terrible yesterday. My insides shake, yet I give constant eye contact and slow nods.
“I lost a pound. Pregnant women don’t lose weight! The baby has grown, but the ultrasound technician struggled to get the measurements. I told them about you, Michele, and how scared I am.”
“I’m glad you did and it’s ok. Keep in touch with your doctor and go with what your instincts tell you. They’re right.” My smile was small, but sincere. I won’t go into the pain or sorrow, but am here for a friend. My smile does not bring pleasure to me, but to its intended.
My answer drops before me typing black and white on the page. Smiles. Smiles that laugh and console, love and lie, live and die. I know why I smile and mostly it’s for others.
Singing “Snapshot” loudly in my uncle’s Ford, we turn the corner on a cool, fall day and my sister and I slide across the vinyl seats. Cotton slips easily and so does the day: melodies float under our laughter and I see my reflection in his rearview mirror, smiling. Teethy grin, smiling, happy days spent with family. I guess my photo books tell the story I want to keep. The sad stories have their own album.