Portraits

by Erin Margaret Barker

As I opened the door, the smell of turpentine coated
my nostrils. Turpentine always reminded me of my mother. Oil paint
and turpentine, and sometimes her perfume that she tried to mask the
smells with. I’d spent more of my childhood in her studio than in our
own house.
I had been inside the studio only once in the past several years. I
glanced toward the west wall, the portrait wall, and saw that my old
friends still hung there. My mother filled an entire wall with paintings.

Unlike lines of noble portraits that grace castles and manors, her col-
lection was simply a hodgepodge of several dozen l 2×9 inch sketches of expressions~ there was a distinguished businessman, a stuffy grandmother dwarfed by her hat, and a pudgy girl whose nose ring made her closely resemble an infuriated bull. The faces that graced my mother’s wall were true likenesses of their subjects. My mother never
idealized things, unless the commission was large enough. She painted
wrinkles and birthmarks, bad dye jobs and gapped teeth. There was
something brutally honest in all her portraits.
Those portraits were my childhood friends. My mother couldn’t
afford a babysitter, so I’d play for hours on her studio floor while she
worked. When my picture books or doll bored me, or when I’d given
up trying to attract my mother’s attention, I’d turn to the wall and silently introduce myself to the people there. I learned all about the
Robert Redford look alike, his law practice, and his daughter that he
saw only every other Christmas. A cute blond girl, about my age,
would invite me to all her parties (which only the popular kids went to).
There was also a studious-looking girl with mousy hair who cried
at night because the kids at school teased her. A mean old, woman next to her scared me because she would always complain about the neighborhood kids kicking their soccer balls into her yard. There was a freckled boy about my age who would tell me all about his dog, Rover. I’d always wanted a dog.

These portraits would listen to me too, giving me advice or com-
fort. I was especially grateful for them during those long nights when I had to wait for my mother to finish painting or framing. My mother
always had to paint because we always had to eat. That is what she
would tell me, but often she would paint so late into the evening that
sleepiness eventually replaced my hunger and my whining about our
late dinner.
Sometimes my mother would catch me staring at the portraits.

She’d pause, Lilt her head to the side, and scrutinize me with the intensity reserved for the subjects of her paintings. “Do you want me to paint you?”
Such suggestions divided me. I’d have given anything to be the
focus of my mother’s attention for a few hours. Yet invariably, I
recoiled from her offers. I didn’t like the idea of my face joining her
portrait wall. In my childhood mind those portraits were real. Putting
my portrait next to them would affirm what I’d been denying for
years- that they were nothing more than faces painted on canvas.
I never explained that to my mother; she wouldn’t have understood.
So I’d tell her that I didn’t like sitting still for so long. If she pushed the
subject, I’d argue until she’d sigh and give up.
About the time I realized that it was childish and immature to have
silent conversations with portraits, I hit what could be most tactfully
called “a geeky stage” in my life. Now when my mother would try to
paint my portrait, I’d refuse passionately because I was scared. I had
watched my mother’s brush long enough to know that it never lied,
and my fragile pre-teen self-esteem didn’t want to see how my mother
viewed me.
Around this time, the studio began to feel more cramped. I was no
longer content to just read or play in my mother’s studio. And I had long ago learned that my mother’s focus was her painting and that my
insistence for attention was futile. The only eyes ever on me were those
of the portraits.
I quit coming to the studio when she finally agreed that I was old
enough to stay home alone after school. I’d stop by occasionally,
but usually only when I’d locked myself out of the house because l’d
forgotten to put the spare key back under the mat the day before.
One such day I was tackling algebra, surrounded by pastels and wet
paintbrushes when I felt more than the eyes of the portraits on me.
“Mom, what are you doing?” I demanded.
“Nothing.” But her eyes didn’t meet mine; they were focused on
my hairline. I instinctively smoothed my hair. But she kept staring at
me, seeing not her daughter, but rather light and shadows, negative
and positive shapes.
“You are not painting a portrait of me.” I lept to my feet, preparing
to rip the painting ofT the easel. My hand was halfway to the painting,
poised for action, and then I let it drop at my side.
Gaping from the canvas was a mass of frizzy hair, a too-large nose,
and eyes that squinted too much. No mirror could have been crueler
I drew away from the painting, my shoulders hunched and my
hands pulling awkwardly on my shirt sleeves. Upon seeing me shrink
back, my mother reached up to stroke my hair and said, “Baby, it’s just
a sketch.”
I batted her hand away before she could touch me. That sketch
had ripped out my insides. I didn’t expect to have a good yearbook
picture; they were always awful. But I was used to that; cameras
usually caught me at awkward moments. But mothers are supposed to
see their daughters as beautiful.
That small oil painting confirmed my worst fears: there was no swan
here. Not even artistic vision and motherly love could find one. There
on that small canvas was one ugly duckling doomed to hang forever
next to her former friends on the portrait wall.
“How could you?” I said.
“Honey, I don’t understand … why can’t I paint a picture of you?”
I hated that she now looked confused and lost.
“You’re right, you don’t understand. You never will.” I shoved my
books into my bag, tearing my homework in the process, but I didn’t
care. I left the studio while staring at my feet and inadvertently
knocked over an easel. l stopped visiting my mother’s studio completely. She never asked
me to sit for her; she never brought up the subject again. We just went
on, pretending nothing had happened, but I couldn’t forget it.
Sometimes when she’d come home, I’d smell the paint and long to
visit the studio. I smile and think of my old friends hanging there.
Then I’d see myself, hanging next to them in the place of honor. I
cringed at the thought.
Through those years when our conversations consisted mostly of her
trying to ask me about school or friends and me responding in one
word, evasive grunts, I’d catch her looking at me. She’d stare with those
same artist eyes, but they were now puzzled, and for a fleeting second
I’d think I’d catch concern, or if I dared hope, love. But then I’d
remember how she’d seen me, how her brush had depicted me, and
I’d deflate again.
For the rest of the time I lived at home I avoided my mother’s
painting. But once when I was at college, l drove three hours to see one
of her shows. I never told her that l went. [ never told her that l
thought her paintings were beautiful. I just wasn’t ready to bring the
subject up.
When I married and had kids of my own, my mother and I finally
had something in common- we both loved my daughters. At her
insistence, I’d take them to visit her I’d even drop Annie and Sarah off
at the studio while I’d run errands, but I never went in. They would sit
and read or watch her paint, just like I used to.
She started coming over to dinner at our house. The first few meals were awkward, with my husband and daughters carrying the conversation, but eventually, my mother and I began to talk more and more.

At first, we talked just about her granddaughters, then we moved up to
movies and books. Once, while drying dishes, she delved a little deeper.
“You liked working as a nurse, didn’t you?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Do you miss it?” I’d quit when Annie was born.
“No,” I said. Then summoning my courage, I added, ” I decided
that time with my daughters was more important than the extra . m ” come.
I waited for her to answer my subtle accusation. All she said was,
“You were lucky you could afford to do that. ”
That unnerved me. I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to ask
her about her painting and why she’d painted all these years. Had it really been just to pay the bills? But I didn’t know what to say, so I just
nodded as she handed me another plate.
The next week she didn’t show up for dinner. I called her house,
and then the studio. No one answered. After a few hours, I drove over
to the studio. The light was on. After years of avoiding the studio, I
had to drive around the block three times before deciding to go in.
Once inside, I found her crying at her easel.
The doctors had found ovarian cancer. She was with us for only a
few months after that. Her death was so painful for me that I put off
cleaning out her studio as long as possible. I waited until I thought I
could do it without breaking into tears. But when I stood inside her
cramped, cluttered studio, I was overwhelmed by memories and the
smell of turpentine and paint that would probably remain in those
walls long after I have cleaned everything out.
Annie and Sarah came with me that day. They said they wanted to
come one last time. We worked all day, moving out almost all the
framed paintings, sending some to galleries, and keeping others for our
family.
Later in the afternoon I opened a large cupboard, tucked away in
the corner behind dozens of empty frames. I pulled one painting down.
Unbelieving, I pulled another out, and another and another. The
cupboard was teeming with small portraits I’d never seen before.
There was one of a toddler dragging a teddy bear by her foot, and
behind that, a young child in pigtails scribbling all over a coloring
book. I pulled out one of a studious student lying on her stomach while
reading Little Women. There was an awkward teenager with a bright
smile, and then, a young college graduate in her dark blue robe. Next
I saw an overly pregnant twenty-five-year-old, and finally a mother
and two daughters.
I’d been fighting back tears all day. “For my daughters’ sake,” I’d
told myself. But now I let them fall. I smiled as I gently ran my fingers
over each painting, tracing the faces of each picture, musing over their
painter and their subjects.
” Wow, these are beautiful,” Annie said quietly. I turned and smiled
at my daughters who had come up behind me without my noticing.
I watched my daughters sift through the portraits. “You’re right,
they are beautiful. ”

 

Erin Margaret Barker is a senior at BYU studying English teaching
with a Spanish teaching minor. If she could, she’d spend all of her
time playing tennis and hanging out with family and friends.