Ford Smiley poses for a senior photo taken by photographer Andrea Hand. Credit: Sarah Smiley

For as long as I can remember — or, at least, since people started using Facebook to announce life events — this summer meant one thing to me: Ford’s senior pictures. OK, it also meant Ford’s last full summer at home before college, but that wasn’t real so long as he hadn’t done any senior photos yet.

For the past couple years especially, every time one of my friends posted a picture of her son’s or daughter’s senior photos, a little knot formed in my stomach. Nothing marks the beginning of your child leaving home like those official pictures that show the world they are no longer a little boy.

Thankfully, there was always a small buffer between that and me. Ford was a freshman, and then a sophmore, and then a junior. Senior year seemed light years away. Although I could empathize with the mothers sharing pictures of their babies-turned-men, I still had time before I had to face it myself. There were plenty more summers to think life would be the way it always had been: me with my three “little” boys.

Then our family friend and photographer Andrea Hand texted to ask if it was time to schedule Ford’s senior portraits.

No, no, no and no.

But, of course, yes. Yes, it was time.

The night before his scheduled appointment, I carefully laid out shirts and pants that I thought he should wear. These were apparently the exact opposite of what he wanted to wear, because the next morning, I woke up to a wad of clothes on the kitchen counter.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“That’s what I’m wearing for the senior pictures,” he said.

“But I carefully laid out and smoothed all the other —“

It was no use. Turns out, one of the many first times a mother feels “in the way” is during her child’s senior portrait session. It’s an in-between space. I no longer pick our Ford’s clothes or tell him how to stand, but, well, you know, I am the one paying for the photos. So Ford graciously allowed me my interjections — “stand straight,” “don’t slouch,” “smile naturally” — while softly clenching his back teeth.

“Maybe he will do better if I’m not around,” I said to Andrea, hoping she’d protest.

Instead, she said, “Yes, probably.” And just like that, I was sitting on a rock, watching from afar as Ford stood straight and smiled naturally without my help.

I can still remember his first day of school, when he peered out the bus window at me with big, tearful eyes, and how he came home at the end of the day and said, “That was fun, but I’m not going again tomorrow. I’ll stay home with you and Owen.”

There is not much about Ford today that is similar to that little boy — except for his eyes. As Andrea snapped pictures and he looked for the camera, I could absolutely still see his baby face in those big, brown eyes that turn slightly downward at the edges. Where did all the time go? How was I chasing toddlers seemingly yesterday and now sitting on a rock, unsure in what ways my nearly grown-up son needs my help?

I was sad for most of the photo shoot because although these pictures mark the beginning of the rest of Ford’s life, they also commemorate the beginning of the end of the best part of mine. There is nothing I have loved more than being Ford, Owen and Lindell’s mom, and now suddenly, in just one afternoon, it felt like those years of chasing kids, fixing lunches, settling fights and organizing birthday parties were coming to slow, painful end.

Just before sunset, we went by the house to grab Ford’s younger brothers, ages 15 and 11, and drove to Sunset Rock in Dedham to do a picture of the three siblings together. Owen and Lindell fought the whole way there. No one could agree on which song to listen to. Lindell was annoying Owen and vice versa. Someone was reportedly “breathing too loud,” and someone else was “resting his hands” in “an annoying way.”

When we arrived at the top of the mountain, Lindell had an epic meltdown and chose not to be in the photo. The younger boys called each other names. I was caught in the middle settling fights. Everyone was hungry. And now Lindell wasn’t talking to me anymore. He sat with his arms folded across his chest in the backseat of the car.

All of the commotion came to me like a small, precious gift.

This motherhood thing isn’t quite finished. They still need me.

And there was Ford, in the driver’s seat, quiet, sitting tall and smiling naturally — probably counting the days until he’s off on his own and not listening to his brothers fight.

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