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Friday Feature: Cieara Estelle

Born and raised in Detroit, Cieara Estelle is a writer whose stories mostly focus on

multigenerational relationships, Black urban living, and womanhood. Her work has been awarded by the University and Michigan Dearborn and published in Ambassador Magazine and The Michigan Chronicle. Follow her on Instagram.

Family Portrait

Peaches takes portraits in her grandmother’s seafoam green living room for thirty-two dollars, so my mama hyped up her skills around the house for weeks, saying how she’s the best photographer in the neighborhood. On the walk down to Peaches’ grandmother’s house, mama’s patent leather heels clicked like little cymbals on the sidewalk as she kept talking about how Peaches could even make Don King look good on camera, that the girl was at the top of her class at the College for Creative Studies, that we should feel lucky we lived so close to such a talent. But we all know we wouldn’t have ended up in front of that worn-down wallpaper but Peaches wanted us to pretend was the “perfect neutral backdrop” if it weren’t for the price.

The night before, I got up to get a cup of water and I overheard my daddy tell my mama he wasn’t paying for pictures, especially since we all basically looked the same in the ones we took a year ago except for Mel who may have grown an inch or two. So I guess mama was footing the bill, which was a stretch for mama, with her one-day-a-week job at the cleaners.

Family pictures right before Thanksgiving has been a long-standing tradition for us. Dex said mama does it to show her family in Georgia, all is still well with her in Detroit and she’s not in a homeless shelter like so many said she would be when she decided to marry my dad and move up north.

Not only that but she’s adamant about getting the pictures in the mail by the end of November, I told her it would be easier to just post them on Facebook, but she said posting pictures to a bunch of strangers versus sending tangible cards in the mail is two totally different things and I should know that. I mean I did know that, but I also didn’t see what the big deal was.

Dex stood next to me with a smirk while humming the Jeopardy countdown tune as Peaches struggled with her tripod.

“Can you stop?” she said to him, hunched over the camera, her watermelon breast covering the lens.

“Dexter!” Mama shouted as she swatted his chest with the back of her hand. Mama was in her Sunday Best. A navy-blue ankle-length dress with a rhinestone collar, soft curls pinned up with swoops on both sides. The rest of us looked like her background singers. Dad in his too-tight brown corduroy suit, Dex in his baby blue button-down shirt and matching striped tie, Mel in her yellow tulle dress and Girl Scout sash draped across her small frame that she cried all morning begging to wear, and me in an itchy turquoise polyester jumper Grandma Pat gave the year before for my birthday. Peaches looked up from the camera and smiled with her tiny chicklet teeth.

“Y’all looking like the ocean,” she said. “All the shades of blue and browns. Except for little mama there in yellow,” she pointed to Mel who stood in the center of everyone. “She looks like a princess sun,'' Mel laughed and pulled on her sash, making the sewn-on patches slide from her chest to back. I shook my head because even though I wasn’t sure if a princess sun was an actual thing or not, Peaches was spot on, pointing Mel out as the spoiled, get-whatever-she-wanted one in the family.

“Is the yellow going to throw the picture off? I told her to wear a brown dress, but you know how kids are these days. Always got ideas of their own,” Mama said, arms wrapped across Mel as if she was prepared to eclipse the sun with her own brown arms.

From what I could tell Peaches didn’t like kids at all, the only time I saw her talking to any was when she was yelling through the screen door telling them to stop popping wheelies on her lawn. But she smiled and winked at Mel and said, “ A little sun never ruined a show,” Peaches must have needed the money bad.

Ms. Pauline, Peaches’ grandma, walked into the living room carrying an oversized mug that said JAW, Jesus Always Wins. She didn’t look at us or Peaches. Her burgundy sweatsuit had a bleach stain on the back of her pants that made her butt look like it was on fire.

“When you gonna be done in here?” she asked as she set her mug on an end table and picked up the remote. I nudged Dex in the ribs trying to point out her butt stain but he was fixated on Peaches breasts that were still spilling over the lens.

“Okay, I got it yall, stand close together,” Peaches said to us.

“Girl you hear me? Don’t make me embarrass you in front of your company,”

“These are my clients grandma, and just a few more minutes please,”

Ms. Pauline huffed and looked over her shoulder.

“Oh I didn’t even see you there Ronetta,” she said to my mother. “Peaches be having some of everybody up in here. I thought it was just one of her little friends,”

Ms. Pauline and my mom were on the Sunday School committee at church together and played Bingo every other Friday.

“You're fine, Pauline. I’m sorry we just wanted to get some pictures done. We can leave if it’s not a good time,”

“Oh girl, don’t mind me. I just wanted to watch CNN before I start making dinner,”

“Grandma ain’t nothing going to change. They voted Trump in there, might as well accept it,”

“Hush child, I don’t care about that raggedy election,”

Peaches nodded without looking in Ms. Pauline’s direction and I hoped their talk wouldn’t rile up daddy.

“All I know is Trump is about to set black people back forty years flat!” he said, with enough bass in his voice to shake the living room.

“You ain’t lying,” Ms. Pauline said, she leaned back in her LAY-Z boy; the chair groaned like it was already tired of her.

Peaches angled her body away from her grandma and rolled her eyes and all I could wonder was when the pictures would be taken because I didn’t put any lotion on my legs and they were screaming from the tights rubbing up against them.

“Okay, we’re ready. Stand close together and say Cheese!”

We sang the word in unison and her camera flashed over and over.

“Okay that’s good, we got some good ones,”

“You sure? Is that it?’

“Yes, you got the thirty-two-dollar package right? That’s only one pose,”

“Oh,” my mom said in a way that made me feel sorry for her.

My dad put his coat on as soon as Peaches said we were done, Mel was at the door behind him and Dex’s eyes were glued to the TV.

“I got you, Ronetta don’t worry y'all looking a billion bucks,”

“Ronetta? Girl, she old enough to be your mama. Go to college and get beside yourself” Ms. Pauline barked toward her granddaughter, never taking her eyes off the screen.

“Ms. Ronetta, I’m sorry,”

“You alright sweetie, calling me Ms. anything just makes me feel old. So, when can I expect the pictures?”

“Oh give me a day and I’ll send it by email,”

My mom looked at me and I already knew what she was going to say.

“And you’ll help me figure out how to get it printed right Tatum?”

“Yeah mama, you know I will,”

“Okay well, I guess we’re finished here. Thank you Peaches. I can't wait to see how they turn out. See you, Pauline,”

Ms. Pauline waved as she took a sip from the mug.

Mama’s mouth was fixed in a tiny smile, her eyes were relaxed, and her steps light as she moved toward the door. Mama didn’t ask for much, but this annual tradition made her happier than any cheap piece of jewelry or bottle of perfume we could give her, so I was happy to see her happy. It made the annoyance of dressing up on a Saturday and walking down to Peaches for some living room pictures worth it.


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Toi Derricotte, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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