A Picture Bigger Than Life

A single image of a portrait of her 6-year-old self summons the magnitude of the mom she lost.

by Jan Stone • More.com Member { View Profile }

Pictures were stacked against the basement wall on our garage sale’s last day, and a framed portrait of me as a six-year-old pitched forward. There was lots of laughter and relief about this being the final moments of a 24-year purge, but the indifference as my portrait headed south shattered something deep inside me, even before the glass splintered. The garage sale and apathy over my broken portrait were my two most difficult moments during our downsizing (although my husband, older daughter, and niece, who were there then, had no clue). They probably don’t even remember that moment when we stood in the corner of the basement between the furnace and cabinets on that overcast day, the sun setting quickly while we separated what to pack with what to send on to the final Goodwill pile.

The picture is a chalk portrait of me that hung for decades in the suburban house where I grew up. My slow-motion observation of its downfall was as unsettling as my unrealistic notion of its permanence. It never hung in this home, where it barely survived its only outing. After my parents died, it made its way here before we sold their home where I grew up.

My reaction strikes me as incredibly naïve, what with chalk pastels perhaps the most fragile of an artist’s media. Created on art paper, not canvas, it’s easily torn and smeared when not preserved under glass, which is as delicate. A triple threat. All the chalk masterpieces my daughters and their friends created on the sidewalks and driveways of our past would wash away overnight, welcoming fresh starts every morning. I hadn’t connected the fleeting similarities before, but I must have known somewhere deep inside where that kind of knowledge becomes clear when a stark realization is imminent. The inverse of the “aha” moment, where we revel in the consequence of an unanticipated blessing.

A chill shot through my heart when the picture struck the cement, scattering slivers of glass. Nearly five decades after its creation, its vulnerabilities became mine. The fears and tears of my captured 6-year-old self lay in the glass shards surrounding me.

My mom bought the brown cotton dress with its pink baby-doll collar specifically for the occasion. I sat up straight, petite hands crossed over my lap and white, lace-trimmed socks and black, patent-leather shoes crossed at the ankles. For two days, I posed in the inside shopping mall while an artist captured the expression that defined me for decades. 

The covered mall was revolutionary in the Midwest in the early 1960s. Anchored on one end by Carson Pirie Scott & Co. and the other by Sears Roebuck, those retailers encapsulated shoe and toy stores, boutiques, a food mall, and annual Easter Bunny and Santa Claus visits.

The portrait-sitting captures some of my first real memories. Details never change. When I would ask others who came to watch the artist render me, they repeatedly confirmed specific details I recalled. These weren’t placating neighbors; Shirley Stone was my mom, and she wouldn’t have friends like that. She preferred what she called straight shooters.

I sat still as a statue, believing if I moved I’d blur the picture, as if the artist were capturing a single image with a camera. Or worse, I’d anger the artist or disappoint my mom. I still dread the thought of letting someone down, even a stranger paid to recreate my likeness.

The artist sat on a stool behind a big easel where his art paper hung from a gigantic clasp. To his side on a small table were all shapes and sizes of chalks he’d blend with other broken bits of blues, beiges and browns onto his palette or sometimes on top of his hand to find the right shade. His eyes moved slowly from me to the easel to the different pastel pieces and back a million times. He rarely spoke but occasionally tapped a tan or coral chunk of chalk onto a practice pad as if it were a gavel, the artist-judge punctuating his expertise by floating magic dust into the air and onto his apron.

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