My family of six recently moved to a new home. Everybody knows what’s involved with that so I’ll skip the part about what a pain it is. Four weeks after moving, I finally got to a point where I thought, “OK, I can live with this” and resumed my previous life. However, five boxes remained untouched. Since they contained items like wedding pictures and books on parenting, they were easy to ignore but on a whim of wild ambition, I started unpacking again today.
Jacked up on caffeine and raw determination, the first box was easy to tackle. “No, Michele,” I’d tell myself, “you may NOT stop to look at your sixteen-year-old’s preschool crafts. Keep moving, stay focused.” I resolved to finish. In the meantime, my kids were running in and out of the basement taking full advantage of my single-mindedness.
“Mom, can we….”
“Uh-huh,” I said never looking up from a box of books on marriage. I don’t need these anymore.
A few minutes later another child, “Hey, Mom, would it be all right if….”
“Yep,” I’d say without hearing the end of the question. I was too focused on color-coordinating my bookshelf. Instead of listening, I debated if the teal-colored books should go with the blue books or the green books or should they go in a category by themselves between the blue and green books. No, that would be too predictable. Hmm, I wondered.
So while organizing white books with black titles from white books with red titles, my kids wreaked havoc on my home. It looked like two F-4 tornados had blown through the front door. With a massive cleanup effort needed upstairs, I continued to de-clutter downstairs. Only one box remained. While removing newspapers from 2004 (the date of my previous move), I took a quick inventory of the box’s contents to consider where everything should go. At the bottom of this cardboard vault, I found something surprising. It was a studio-portrait of me when I was five. I’m wearing pigtails, a pink frilly dress, black patent leather shoes with white ruffled nylon socks. Around my neck is a heart-shaped pendant with a pearl in the middle. The best part? I’m poking my lip out as far as it would go without getting it “smacked off my face.”
In the portrait, I look exactly like I felt.
There’s a reason why this portrait is on the bottom of a twice-neglected moving box–I hate it. I remember that day vividly because just before the picture was taken I had a meltdown. Why? Because I’d never worn a dress before. In fact, my mother had to buy the dress for this portrait. And it wasn’t just any dress. No, it was the Shirley Temple of all dresses. I’m not even sure why we were making portraits anyway; we’d never done one before or haven’t since. The shoes were borrowed because the soles were scuffed and worn but I’m certain they’re not mine. I had boots that I wore with everything including shorts. And as far as the necklace? It could’ve been my mother’s or my sister’s but again not mine. The only piece of jewelry I owned was a mood ring that I thought catapulted me right into adolescence. My mood on that day? Is there a color for “rage”?
I’d like to ask my mother, “Where did the idea of this portrait come from anyway?” I had seven, yes, count ‘em, SEVEN siblings. None of them were having their pictures made. Just me. My mom and dad weren’t having their portraits made either. I think this whole idea was a ruse by my mother to capture an image of the little girl she always wanted but never had.
I would have no part of it.
I was a tomboy. I liked to fish with my dad and could bait my own hook. I had a dirt bike, a pocketknife and could proudly say that I never owned a Barbie or a stupid baby doll…I mean, a baby doll. So what was I doing in a pink dress with pigtails? Where were my Hee-Haw overalls? “Why can’t I have my portrait made in those?” I remember asking. Whatever my mother said was drowned out by the sound of earthquakes and plane crashes because I was wearing a dress. There goes my street credibility with the boys I’d recruited to play football in my neighborhood. When they saw this picture of me over my mother’s mantle, I’d be the laughing stock of our team or worse; I’d be reduced to a cheerleader.
My extravagant aunt must have played a part in this because the portrait sitting was in her living room. My mother and Aunt Gene (not really my biological aunt) were always nursing some newly-hatched nutty scheme; think Lucy and Ethel. Aunt Gene worked in the gift-wrapping department at Gayfords, which was the equivalent of a 1970s Belk. She gave the prettiest presents although her gifts were never anything I wanted. I asked for a spacesuit like the astronauts wore on the moon but I kept getting scarves. Aunt Gene was redneck royalty, her parents were some kind of Appalachian aristocracy. She was COUN-try with a touch of couture. She always dressed as if she was going to a beauty pageant–hair, heels, hose, all done to perfection. Gene had a son named Ezra Clayton. Yes, Ezra Clayton (you can’t make this stuff up). In his mid-twenties, tall but not lanky, blonde and blue-eyed, he had a “big personality” like his mother. Aunt Gene and Ezra Clayton both had high-pitched, nasally Tennessee twangs–Fran Drescher meets Paula Deen. Aunt Gene’s husband, Uncle Wade (again, not really my uncle…whatever) was a mean man. He was the foulest person I’ve ever known–nasty, obnoxious (like my dress) and heartless. He cursed, drank and smoked habitually. An ex-Marine with a purple heart from Vietnam, Wade was nearly deaf from a hand-grenade blast that also took his legs. He hated everybody. He especially hated his son, Ezra Clayton. He was emotionally and verbally abusive to him publicly. Who knows what happened behind closed doors. Ezra Clayton somehow maintained an amazing sense of humor and joy. When I remember him, he’s always smiling which is what I refused to do on this day–smile.
While Mom poured another Bloody Mary and I screamed “bloody mary,” my cousin (who was not really my cousin because, remember, my aunt’s not really my aunt) came to the rescue. Mom was screeching about sitting fees and how I better find a way to put a “ #!*damn smile” on my face because she paid “good” money for the photographer when Ezra Clayton slipped into the room. He took my mother gently by the arm and escorted her out while whispering in her ear. After she was gone, he stood quietly with me. I was sitting on the floor carving the Pittsburg Steeler’s Franco Harris’ jersey number, 32, into the side of “my” shoe with a bobby pin pulled from my hair.
Ezra Clayton was a gay man who grew up in the South. He knew about pretending to be something you’re not and how bad that feels. Even though I was only five, I knew he was gay and I sort of knew what that meant although nobody would talk about it openly. He lived with his boyfriend, Leon, who bred hundreds of exotic birds in their house for a living (no, I’m not making this up). Leon stayed home with the birds while Ezra Clayton worked as an ER nurse.
I thought this portrait idea was for the birds. I felt like giving the photographer “the bird” which I knew how to do because I watched my dad exchange middle fingers with the elementary school crossing guard daily for years. When I was younger, he nearly hit her during carpool and she evidently had a hard time forgiving him for it.
I sat silently holding my photogenic charm hostage.
While my mother raided Uncle Wade’s narcotic stash (thanks to a tip from Ezra Clayton who knew mom preferred Vicodin over vodka), my fake cousin joined me on the floor. Every inch of his six-foot body twisted on top of itself like a pretzel so he could sit eyelevel with me. Through angry tears, I looked up to see him sulking. I asked why he was sad and after a long pause he said, “It’s such a pretty dress. I wish I could wear it.”
Then disbelief. Wait, did he just say that? Yes, he did. I looked around to see if anyone else had heard him too but no, just me. I pictured this tall Beverly Hillbilly-of-a-man wearing this ridiculous, pink Little-Miss-Muffet-of-a-dress. I snickered. Ezra Clayton was trying to make me laugh but because I knew he was serious about the dress, I laughed even harder. We sat together until our giggles were gone. Then he told me that I wasn’t going to win this battle with my mother and the sooner I could get it over with the better off I’d be. I told him I felt silly. He smiled and said, “I know and one day you will laugh at this…but not today.” I held on to those words while I sat for my portrait.
One day, I’ll laugh.
Looking at this picture, I realize my face says it all. I don’t belong in those clothes. Even though I wore the dress and the shoes and the necklace, I refused to wear a smile. Honestly, I cringe when I look at this portrait because I remember how badly it felt to be in that dress. I feel sorry for that little girl. I’ve become an observer much like the photographer on that day. I remember my mother’s stubbornness, her drunkness, and how awful it felt to look like something I wasn’t. Mostly I remember the helplessness.
There’s more than an unpacked box here.
As I look at the portrait again, I’m beginning to see something different. I see a little girl being true to herself and my feelings change. I admire her tenacity and authenticity. I see the silent protest she is staging with her eyes. If she could hold a sign it would read, “I’ll never act like something I’m not.” But I will. And I’ll do it again and again. The difference being that when I do, I’ll know I’m in borrowed shoes. Sadly, I’ve put myself in worse situations than my mother did with her fantasy photo-shoot that day. I’ve played the part of orphaned child, jilted wife and martyred mother to name a few. I don’t belong in those “clothes” either; those filthy rags feel worse than frilly dresses. It’s easy to pull off the whole “boots and shorts” look when you’re five but not when you’re 40. It’s even harder to pull off the “freelance-writer, divorced woman, still-a-tomboy-at-43” look too, but it is who I am.
This portrait helped me remember.
John 1:11-18: He [Jesus] came to his own people but they didn’t want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves. These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, not sex-begotten.” (The Message)