A True Portrait
by Debi Orton
A few days before Thanksgiving, my telephone rang. Usually, I screen my calls, since an inordinate number of them originate from survey takers, political candidates (in season), cold callers for so-called charitable organizations, and credit card companies trying to sell me additional services. But for whatever reason, I answered for myself on the second ring.
"Hi, Debi?" The 'hi' was very confident, the 'Debi?' less so. The voice sounded familiar, so although I couldn't immediately identify it, I replied with an equally confident 'hi' of my own.
"You don't know who this is, do you?" the woman on the other end of the connection asked. Before I could answer, she said, "It's Susan."
"Oh, hi Susan," I vamped, waiting for enlightenment to dawn. I knew several Susans, but none of them well enough to recognize their voices without another cue.
"You still don't know who this is," she accused. I was beginning to feel as if this was a test and I wasn't doing so well.
"Not at the moment, but I'll figure it out," I replied.
"I'm your aunt," Susan said. My father's half-sister.
"Oh," was my brilliant reply. I hadn't seen her in more than forty years. "How are you?"
Susan was closer to my age than Dad's. When I was thirteen, she was eighteen, wild and full of what used to be referred to as 'piss and vinegar.' She smoked, drank, had a hot car and used to spend her weekends alternating between hunting antiques and going out with boys. She would often enlist me to go off antique hunting with her. She was my first exposure to what young adulthood could be, and I yearned for it until I left home at sixteen. I was silent as these memories ran past my mind's eye like 'Previously On' clips before an episode of Lost.
"The reason I'm calling," she said, as the silence became uncomfortable, "is that I came across something that I thought you might like to have. Do you remember the picture of your dad that used to hang in the front hall at Mom's house in Rock City Falls?"
I did. In fact, I'd been thinking a lot about that picture, triggered by news reports of a woman who painted similar portraits of soldiers who had died in Iraq and sent them to the soldiers' families. I'd thought the portrait that hung in my Grandmother's house was a watercolor, but Susan corrected me. "It's a pastel," she said, "and it's yours if you want it." I assured her I did.
Our conversation — or rather her side of the conversation — went on for hours, it seemed, and I began to remember a lot about Susan. Her volume was always dialed to 11, and she had no concept of self-monitoring; if she thought it, she said it — and damn the consequences. I got some of that from her, I think. But I got something else from Dad — the ability to listen and hear the story behind the words.
Mom always said that Dad and Susan were so different because of their different fathers. My paternal grandfather was a drunkard, and abandoned the family when my Dad was an infant. Dad had to fill the vacant slot of 'man of the house' too soon, and was bounced around from relative to relative whenever my Grandmother was incapable of caring for him. Susan's father had been my Dad's logging partner, and only a few years older. My grandmother marrying him had been a bit of a scandal in our small-town lives, but he was a stable man, a good breadwinner and a good father.
I definitely wanted the portrait. Dad died in 1975, and my only photo of him was a wallet-sized black and white image.
I had not been back to my home town since checking to make sure the engraving on Mom's half of the tombstone had been done correctly, in the summer of 2005, and I didn't relish the idea of going back now. Susan lives across the road from the cemetery, in view of my (and her) parents' graves. It's a two-hour drive, round trip. Now I need to find the time to go.
I found myself distracted over the next few days, thinking about that portrait of my dad. It had been my first exposure to real art, and I'd spent hours as a child looking at it and marveling at how the artist had achieved such a life-like portrait. Dad was in his A Company uniform, MP armband and helmet, generating 'the look' — nose crooked, face smooth and shiny, eyes squinting in what he probably thought was a look of steely determination, seated in a three-quarters pose with his spine ramrod straight. He looked like someone you'd go out of your way to avoid.
'The look' was something I became all too familiar with as I grew up. I don't know why, but I was a seething bundle of angst and agitation growing up, always wanting everything I didn't have. It could have been hormones — who knows — but I recall my father's unending exasperation at my perpetual unhappiness. To him, I'm sure my childhood seemed idyllic when compared to his. To me, it seemed that I was wasting my days waiting for my life to begin.
But recently I remembered something I'd discovered — something primal — in my hours spent studying that drawing. In faithfully capturing my father's likeness, the artist had captured something deeper, something that resonated in me as true.
In looking back, I see that discovery as one of the earliest stepping stones on my path toward becoming a writer. Anyone can string words together; I see that proven every day. A small minority can even use language to convey meaning. But only the best writers can evoke a living person, describe an actual event, or convey an idea so original it can excite a reader.
There are many stepping stones left on my path, and sometimes I doubt that I'll ever reach the end. But every once in a while I find one of those artists or writers who have achieved mastery in their craft, who can make their work true. It reminds me why I try.