When I helped Lorraine Celi with her memoir, "Memories from an Ordinary Girl's Life," I was working on my own, without benefit of a professional designer. Since Lorraine had supplied me with numerous snapshots from various phases of her life, I went with the idea of a four-piece collage for the cover: a photo from her childhood; her wedding portrait; a family Christmas card shot when her four children were very young; and a professional shot of Lorraine and her husband taken at their youngest child's wedding just a few years before we wrote the memoir.
It was logical, but artistically it wasn't ideal. Recently, as another memoir project approached completion, an interesting debate arose among the two designers who were working on the project, the adult daughter of the octogenarian couple who were subjects of the memoir, and me. The daughter had two favorite photos of her parents: one from when they were teenagers posing at the beach just a year or two before their wedding and another of the two of them taken just recently, outdoors on a sunny day, both with big smiles. Two great photos -- but which to use on the cover? The earlier snapshot was certainly the more exotic one. It was black and white, of course, having been taken in the late 1940s, and the couple's bathing suits and hairstyles made them look like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. With their sultry pouting expressions and lean bodies, they exuded youth and wellness.
In the older photo, by contrast, they exuded.....well, joy. Despite his balding head and her wider figure, despite even the walker on which he leans, they looked pleased with themselves and with their lives. The photo was certainly less exotic, and yet I felt like it was this older couple, and not the teenagers on the beach, who would entice me to pick up their book. Slim romantic teenagers are a story I don’t particularly care to hear right now; it's familiar and not all that full of depth to me. But a couple in their eighties who have weathered countless joys and tragedies, professional and personal successes, friendships and losses, parenthood and community involvement? Yes, I definitely want to know all about them. I want to know what they know. I want to know what makes them smile so widely on this particular sunny day when the recent photo was taken.
In the end, their daughter opted to use the earlier photo for the cover, and I can see why. The image of her parents as young adults with their lives ahead of them was irresistible, and the designers did a wonderful job creating an appealing book cover around that photo.
But whenever I pick up the book, I turn it over and look at the couple on the back: the wise, experienced, seasoned, and yet joyful couple whom we get to know at the end of the book. Ultimately, the story belongs to them, not to their teenage selves.
But maybe for that reason alone, it's okay that we ceded the cover to that other, younger, couple.